Progressive Grocer is proud to present its fifth annual Outstanding Independent Awards to select independent grocery operations that excel in a variety of categories: overall single-store operator, overall multistore operator, overall new concept design, overall fresh excellence, bakery, center store, deli/prepared foods, meat/seafood, produce and technology.
This year’s winners have a lot of actionable ideas that can be applied to your own stores, because no matter how good you are, there’s always room to make your stores better. One small change can make the biggest difference and could encourage more visits by customers.
Brief details of this year's Outstanding Independent honorees appear below, while complete coverage can be found in PG's February 2017 print issue. PG will also recognize its 2017 Outstanding Independents at a dedicated reception at the National Grocers Association show in Las Vegas.
Overall Outstanding Single-store Operator
Janssen's Market, Greenville, Del.
In a world that's busier and offering more food-purchasing options than ever, establishing a distinctive identity for a grocery business is crucial. And Janssen's Market, in Greenville, Del., knows exactly what type of store it is.
“For only a subset of our customers, we are their only grocery store,” says Paula Janssen, general manager. Her grandfather founded the business in 1952, and she, along with her parents, Eileen and Joseph Janssen Jr., now run the business. “But we are, for a lot of people, a place to top up. We make it convenient to make that second trip, so they’re not just coming for one thing, they’re coming and they get everyday items at the same time.” Customers can purchase gourmet items like Epoisses cheese, but can also pick up some laundry detergent.
In addition to the quality products, Janssen also credits the store’s commitment to service in keeping customers coming back. “We focus on the customer experience within the store. We make it warm, inviting and convenient; that’s No. 1,” she says, suggesting that Janssen’s Market is almost more of a gourmet convenience store than a supermarket, due to the customer’s ability to get in and out of the store quickly.
Overall Outstanding Multistore Operator
Oliver’s Market, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Oliver’s Market, with four stores in Sonoma County, Calif., has found its niche. The hybrid store is completely focused on giving the community a choice in how it eats. The crossover concept allows the stores to offer 50 percent conventional products and 50 percent organic and natural products, and sales fall along those lines.
Perhaps the biggest commitment to offering choices to the community is Oliver’s reliance on local suppliers and producers; the stores currently source from about 400 area companies. “Local for us is just this county. It’s not anywhere but Sonoma County,” stresses Steve Maass, founder and president. “It’s not Napa, it’s not Marin, it’s just Sonoma. We’re a Sonoma County store; we’re not located anywhere else.”
“It dawned on us about 20 years ago that that’s our competitive advantage, that we’re local, too. We understand this place better than any chain stores,” says Tom Scott, who retired last September as CEO of the company, after 26 years. Scott Gross, formerly store director of the Windsor store, was promoted to general manager, and Eric Meuse, formerly the Stony Point store director, was named operations manager.
Overall Outstanding Fresh Excellence
McCaffrey’s Food Markets, Langhorne, Pa.
“Fresh” is the word in modern grocery retailing, and McCaffrey’s Food Markets, with five stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, excels at the fresh departments. Two of its stores opened within the past year, a 50,000-square-foot store in Blue Bell, Pa., and a new, smaller, 13,000-square-foot Simply Fresh by McCaffrey’s in Doylestown, Pa.
At the forefront of the fresh departments is prepared foods. “I think the single biggest thing that we do different and better than our competition is prepared foods,” says EVP Jim McCaffrey IV. Most of the items are prepared in the grocer’s 33,000-square-foot central commissary to help control the quality and consistency of products, which are finished in the stores to impart some theater to the fresh departments.
As with any supermarket, the two biggest buzzwords are “local” and “organic.”
“We’re fortunate that we’re not that far spread out geographically yet, so what’s local for one store is legitimately local for the others,” says Jim McCaffrey IV, EVP .
Overall Outstanding New Concept Design
Harvest Market, Champaign, Ill.
With a name like Harvest Market, a supermarket is firmly connecting itself to the land. And Quincy, Ill.-based Niemann Foods’ newest concept does just that.
The new concept, rooted in the farm-to-table concept, was a break from the company’s signature banner — County Market. “We began with the idea that we wanted our customers to have a connection that is unique in the industry and allow them to understand who the producers and makers are, because that allows them to understand where their food came from, what’s in it and what’s not in it,” explains Rich Niemann, president and CEO.
While the produce department does have a tractor situated on the sales floor, the Niemann team was careful to not go down the hokey “Hee Haw” route when it came to design elements in the store.“We reach back to farm symbols of yesterday, but they’re tweaked to make you feel that this is not a joke,” Niemann notes. “This is not a plastic marketing campaign. It’s what we believe in. This is a mission that we’re on to help our customers and provide that information, that interest, that passion for food.”
Broulim’s Fresh Foods, Rigby, Idaho
“We have just a little bit of everything, and I think that’s what sets us apart,” says Charles Camp of Broulim’s Fresh Foods’ in-store scratch bakeries. Camp is bakery/deli director of the family-owned chain that operates 10 stores in Idaho.
The bakery production area is open to customers’ view, so they can watch the bakers work the bread dough or the cake decorators icing and decorating cakes. But to help get that fresh-made point across, the stores regularly conduct “chat and chews,” during which staff sample the product and answer any questions that customers may have.
“It builds our guest interaction, and we can talk about how it’s made,” says Scott Zahrn, sales manager. “That’s a good time to say it’s scratch-made in the store.” Or the employees may set up a demonstration table and highlight how well the baguettes partner with different dipping oils.
Highland Park Market, Manchester, Conn.
“We definitely have something that other grocery stores don’t have,” says Bob Thatcher, bakery director for Highland Park Market, an upscale supermarket company that operates five stores in central Connecticut.
“We do a lot of things from scratch,” he adds. “We do a lot of our own cheesecakes and fruit tarts, and we make all our own buttercreams. We also make a few breads and coffee cakes from scratch. We don’t have a lot of product that we just take out of a box and put on the shelf.”
The mostly service bakeries have few grab-and-go items; customers have to interact with staff, which gives the Highland Park Market team an opportunity to establish rapport and relationships with shoppers. It also allows the product to be displayed to its best advantage. “The cases really stand out,” Thatcher says, and customers can’t help but notice the department when they enter the stores. “You get a lot of oohs and ahhs when [customers] walk in and see the case,” he adds. “With bakery, it’s a lot of impulse buying, so you have to make it look good.”
Blue Goose Market, St. Charles, Ill.
When it comes to center store, it can be hard to set yourself apart, to make it exciting. At Blue Goose Market, in St. Charles, Ill., owner and President Paul Lencioni is trying to flip the script. He doesn’t want to talk about customers or consumers; instead, his focus is on people. He often presents new managers with the question of how many people came in to buy a gallon of milk in the past year.
The answer: none. “They don’t come in for milk,” he asserts. “They come in for what that milk is going to do for them — be an ingredient in a recipe, feed their children in the morning.” You have to understand the reason that people are coming to your store before you can provide them with the products they need. Also, you have to care about them, their children and their lifestyle.
“It’s a hunt,” he says. “Live life as big as possible. Go find cool things. Then bring them to people and show them. Take the responsibility to show people cool things on their terms, not yours. Just understand that’s your role.”
Macey’s, Sandy, Utah
Macey’s, a banner of Associated Food Stores (AFS) operating a dozen stores in Utah, is trying to make shopping and food prep easier for customers. The stores’ Dinner 1-2-3 promotions target Gen X and Millennial shoppers who are looking for simple dinner solutions.
“We realized a lot of our shoppers are time-starved,” says Josh Allen, director of center store operations for Associated Retail Operations, a division of Salt Lake City-based AFS. “This is a quick meal solution for them to take care of their needs.”
The promotion highlights an innovative center store product, typically a sauce mix, along with instructions on how to combine it with other items throughout the store to make a fast, easy meal. Macey’s often offers customers a price break when they purchase all of the ingredients needed for a Dinner 1-2-3 meal.
Tony O’s Supermarket, Kingsville, Ohio
About a decade ago, Tony Orlando, owner of Tony O’s Supermarket, in Kingsville, Ohio, knew he had to make some changes in his store if he was going to stay in business.
“I wanted to keep building strong niches because I saw the future, which is, we’re going to be out of business if we don’t really give them some signature, branded items that they have to come here for,” he says. “I changed over to 100 percent scratch in my deli, and we never looked back.”
Controlling the sampling is important, and Orlando doesn’t believe in leaving samples on top of the counter, because that makes it too easy for customers to grab them and leave without employees having a chance to engage. “If you control the sampling, your sales go up 80 percent,” Orlando says. “We control, we engage, we talk to people. We just try to stay relevant.”
Lunds & Byerlys, Edina, Minn.
Simple, quality ingredients form the foundation of the prepared food offering at Creations Café, located in 14 of Lunds & Byerlys’ 26 locations.
The Edina, Minn.-based retailer focuses on choice when it comes to the café, which features hot and cold buffets, and salad and taco bars. “The differentiation there is behind the scenes — our kitchen teams,” says John Stueland, director of deli and foodservice. “They source great-quality ingredients. They do minimum processing and preparation to them, and they just put out great, simple, fresh, high-quality prepared foods.”
Lunds & Byerlys has introduced several better-for-you options to meet customer demand. Stueland’s team has added fresh-roasted and -steamed vegetables, as well as replaced the breaded and fried fish items with baked or broiled nonbreaded salmon, cod or tilapia. While pasta is still available, the selection is usually only one variety instead of the three or four previously offered, and now fresh, seasonal grains are on the menu, like brown rice and quinoa.
B. Green Co., Baltimore
With four stores in the Baltimore area — two Food Depots in the inner city and two Green Valley Marketplaces in the suburbs — seafood is a big deal, and not surprisingly, the locations have become well known for their crabs.
COO Rick Rodgers notes that the perishables departments, such as meat and seafood, are what set the stores apart. “If somebody is coming in and buying the center of the plate, which is a protein item, whether it’s meat or fish, they’re going to buy everything else,” he says. “I know there’s a lot of people that use our meat, our seafood and our deli because we do a much better job. If they have confidence in the perishable part of your business, then they have confidence in you as a company.”
Superlo Foods, Memphis, Tenn.
Superlo Foods, with seven stores in Memphis, Tenn., was recently voted one of the best meat markets in the city, and it also has the largest self-service meat department in the area.
“It’s all self-serve, and it’s that way intentionally,” says owner Randy Stepherson. “We’re operating as an everyday low-price operator, and we felt like it would help our image as an EDLP operator to not do that service counter.”
On average, the stores have 28 percent meat distribution, due largely to the high-quality products at good prices. Superlo sells Certified Angus Beef and Seaboard 100% Prairie Fresh Pork. The stores also grind meat on site. Best-selling items range from ground beef and chuck roast to steaks and filets, depending on the location of the store.
Piggly Wiggly Alabama Distributing, Bessemer, Ala.
“In produce, it’s freshness — that’s what it’s all about,” asserts Jay Bennett, director of produce for Piggly Wiggly Alabama Distributing (PWAD), in Bessemer, Ala.
Local is a huge trend in produce departments across the country, but PWAD services stores in five states, so what’s local in one area may not be local in another. Part of the appeal of locally grown products is that customers like to support family farms, and it’s that family-farm element that Bennett is focusing on in a new marketing program that will be rolled out in stores over the next several months.
“These are literally family farms that are growing this product. They may be in California or Washington, but you’re still supporting that family. You’re still supporting another independent small farm,” Bennett says. “The concept is not to take away from a local philosophy.”
Willy Street Co-op, Madison, Wis.
The produce departments at Willy Street Co-op, which operates three locations in Madison and Middleton, Wis., are really the cornerstone of the business, notes Brendan Smith, director of communications. “Our produce department is kind of a destination spot in our city. I think local. If you’re going to have a commitment to local, it has to be based in the produce department,” he adds.
Meghan Minnick, purchasing director, agrees, “We have relationships going back to the inception of our co-op, to the late ’70s, with farms.”
Minnick works with both the farmers and a processing facility to create a line of preserved local products sold under a Willy Street private label. “It’s beneficial for everybody,” Minnick says. “It’s beneficial for the farmers because it helps them get rid of that surplus product that they can’t necessarily sell fresh. It helps preserve the local season. It’s been really great.”
California Fresh Market, San Luis Obispo, Calif.
One of customers’ biggest pain points in a supermarket is the checkout, and California Fresh Market, in San Luis Obispo, Calif., introduced an app to relieve the stress of picking the right line when the store opened last November.
Customers download the app, add a credit card number and start shopping by simply scanning product barcodes and placing the items in their bags. When they’re ready to check out, customers go to a special checkout that scans the QR code that the app generates on their phones.
Alfred Holzheu, president of California Fresh Brands, which operates California Fresh Market and El Rancho Market, and the app company also are working on a way for customers to order deli items on their phones and then go pick them up when they’re ready. “I’m a techie in general,” he says, so he’s always looking for ways to push the envelope in the grocery industry.
Festival Foods, De Pere, Wis.
During an assessment of everything digital associated with Festival Foods, the De Pere, Wis.-based company realized that its biggest opportunity was its website: It was the hub of the supermarket’s digital presence and linked to all other digital properties. That led to a complete revamp, says Nick Arlt, brand strategy director.
Since the updated website launched in October 2015, the results have been beyond expectations: Overall traffic has increased by more than 24 percent, and mobile traffic specifically is up more than 56 percent.
“Looking at the technology side, it’s almost no longer an option to not have a website, and it’s becoming non-optional to not have a mobile-friendly or mobile-responsive site,” he says. “On the people side of it, don’t make it about yourself, make it about your guests. A website that serves your purposes doesn’t necessarily mean your guests are going to want to go there.”