Redner's Markets Inc. CEO Ryan Redner, left, and COO Gary Redner lead a tour of the company's 45,000-square-foot Redner's Fresh Market format in Wyomissing, Pa.
For grocers who want to know how to leverage innovation in their foodservice operations, a look at what “Chef Tim” is doing in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country might offer some clues.
Chef Tim, aka Tim Twiford, directs the impressive foodservice offering at Reading, Pa.-based Redner’s Markets Inc., an operator of 44 grocery stores and 12 convenience stores in eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware, with annual sales of about $850 million.
“These are Henny Penny fryers,” says Twiford as he leads a tour of the company’s new 20,000-square-foot Central Kitchen. “Everything in here is state of the art. What happens is after, say, 12 times of frying a batch of fried chicken, it will say ‘filter the oil.’ So it won’t let you fry anything else. And this ensures all of our fried chicken is excellent.”
As it turns out, fried chicken isn’t the only thing that the third generation of Redners leading Redner’s Markets takes seriously. If you’re looking for a case study of how a 50-year-old family-owned, independent grocer can reinvent itself to win over new shoppers and create sustained growth, Redner’s is it.
Chef Tim Twiford, at the new Redner's Central Kitchen in West Lawn, Pa., shows off some chicken breasts.
Family Focus on Fresh
In 2019, a year before the company turned 50, Redner’s embarked on a mission to reimagine its business model. Since its founding in 1970, the grocery chain had always been known for offering a no-frills, warehouse-style store experience.
“We were almost Walmart before Walmart,” says Redner’s Markets COO Gary Redner. “Our grandfather was a visionary, certainly ahead of his time. Take all the frills out of everything. Bare bones, bare pricing. Very plain Jane, drive everything into the cost.”
Fast-forward decades after Walmart came along, and the Redners knew something had to change.
“Because there’s so much competition, so much competition,” explains Redner’s Markets President and CEO Ryan Redner, who along with Gary, is a grandson of company founder Earl Redner.
At the new Redner's Fresh Market format in Wyomissing, Pa., features found in traditional Redner's Markets, such as the Great Wall of Values.
The Redner’s trading area, some of the most beautiful rolling hills and countryside in the mid-Atlantic, is strewn with a “Who’s Who” of successful grocery and c-store operators: Wegmans Food Markets, Wawa, The Giant Co., Sheetz, Lidl, Rutter’s, Weis Markets, and Royal Farms, and that list doesn’t even include the bigger national food retail players like Walmart.
“Our competitors do a really nice job, and in order to compete, we had to add the bells and whistles to compete at the same level, really,” Ryan Redner notes.
After extensive research and trips to grocery stores in California, the company came up with a plan to rebrand and focus on incorporating the kinds of elements that more and more shoppers are looking for: expanded foodservice, innovative meal solutions (pre-made dinner for four for $30!), gathering spaces and knockout produce departments.
Customers are attracted to the fresh popcorn stand near the produce department.
“We had a plan to do the exterior, interior, complete renovations,” Ryan Redner says. “While we were closed outside, we said, ‘What the heck — Let’s just close inside and totally rebrand.’"
The rebranding effort led the company to launch a new banner: Redner’s Fresh Market. The concept joins the company’s other banners: a traditional grocery format, Redner’s Markets, and c-store formats Quick Shoppe and Quick Stop.
When you walk into the 45,000-square-foot Redner’s Fresh Market in Wyomissing, Pa., it still smells like the company’s famous fried chicken, made from a 20-year-old recipe.
“It is crazy what people say about our fried chicken,” said Gary Redner, who is Ryan’s cousin. “They ask, ‘What do you put in it that makes it so different?’ It is unbelievable. It is really, really good.”
The Surf & Turf meat department offers a plethora of custom cuts.
Aside from fried chicken, the aroma of fresh-popped popcorn also fills the air, thanks to a popcorn station near the produce department (upgraded with fancy LED lighting) that makes all manner of seasoned and flavored popcorn from scratch. Meandering into the center store, a shopper will find traditional Redner’s Market features such as the Great Wall of Values, seasonal merchandise, a candy destination and aisles of product in boxes that harken back to the company’s brand identity of value and no frills, emphasized by a timeline and photo gallery of the company’s history and the Redner family adorning the walls.
But Redner’s Fresh Market mixes the old with a lot of new, offering features such as self-checkout, kombucha on tap, a wine/beer bar, a fruit and parfait station, fresh-smoked meats, sushi, fresh-squeezed juices, and fresh guacamole and salsa. There’s a full-service meat/seafood department called Surf and Turf with custom cuts and an impressive smoked meat assortment. Also, an extensive bakery department showcases custom cakes and items such as exquisitely decorated peanut butter eggs.
Redner's Markets has been remodeling its c-stores, such as this Quick Stop in Reading, Pa.
There used to be a salad bar, too, but with the pandemic, that’s been sidelined.
“I think they will be back in our Fresh Markets,” Ryan Redner says, “but we’re already moving them from some of our other stores, because they weren’t making a ton of money, so we’re taking a lot of the salad bars out.”
The crown jewel of the new Redner’s fresh strategy is Chef Tim’s prepared meals and dining room.
“The biggest focus area in this store, which is prepared foods, we put in the center of the store, and it’s all grab-and-go type of items,” Ryan Redner says. Chef Tim, who has decades of foodservice experience in the region, joined Redner’s in 2018 after a stint as executive chef at a hotel.
Redner’s opened its commissary in April in a former Rite Aid space next to one of its Quick Shoppes, and the company has been producing many of its foodservice products there ever since.
At the Wyomissing, Pa., Redner's Fresh Market, Chef Tim's Table serves shoppers multicourse meals in a space that is elegant yet family-oriented, as evidenced by the Redner family photos on the wall.
“The commissary is allowing us to be able to sell all of these products across the chain,” Ryan Redner observes. “It will allow us to improve shelf life. When you go from one store to the next, the consistency of how it looks, the ingredients that go into it, must remain the same. For example, cheese: What kind of shredded cheese is put on top? And if you go from one store to the next, does it look the same? Does it taste the same?”
According to Twiford, his team is aiming to make every single meal, from Shepherd’s Pie to Chicken Caprese to Crab-Stuffed Flounder to Eggplant Parmesan — all made fresh in the commissary — 100% perfect.
“In that island of meal solutions in-store, that is what we are striving for,” Twiford adds. “Every single one has to look perfect, every single one has to look tantalizing. We’ve gone above and beyond in training our staff. And to be honest with you, we continue to keep making it better. And we’ll break it and rebuild it to make it even better. That’s our goal.”
At the Wyomissing store, Chef Tim also has “Chef Tim’s Table,” a dining room-slash-cooking school where Twiford prepares multicourse meals for customers. Some are even done for charity auctions.
“With COVID, we had to make adjustments with the number of people and tables,” Ryan Redner says. “It just creates a unique feel.”
Currently, the company has two Redner’s Fresh Markets operating in Pennsylvania, and the reception from longtime Redner’s shoppers has been overwhelmingly positive (sales are up 25%).
“We haven’t lost as many as we’ve picked up,” notes Gary Redner. “We really tried to do loud and proud by the fact that we did not change prices.”
Redner's Fresh Market offers traditional checkouts, but the company has been busy installing self-checkout across the chain.
Eric White, director of marketing and communications at Redner’s Markets, says that the company plans to take elements from Fresh Market to “refresh some existing stores, really enhance the look of it with things that we found worked in the Fresh Market that we can translate over. Again, spruce up the store and make it look a little more modernized.”
The company, which operates two distribution centers in Reading, Pa., about 63 miles northwest of Philadelphia, and has 4,500 employees, is planning to open a 49,000-square-foot Redner’s Fresh Market in Lewes, Del., in 2022. Gary Redner anticipates keeping the stores around that same size going forward.
“Originally, we wanted to roll out the Redner’s Fresh Market rebrand to a bunch of stores, but we realized that the physical upgrades to the store are more than what we traditionally spend, and it takes a lot of labor to pull off these things, too,” observes Ryan Redner.
“The entire industry is affected by labor shortages,” he continues. “As a result, product inbound is challenged with shorts, late trucks. Our workforce is tired, as they are forced to work extra hours and days in order to help compensate for the labor shortages.”
To alleviate some of the challenges, Ryan Redner says that the company is focused on front end conversions to self-checkout to help mitigate the effect that the labor shortages and minimum-wage increases are having on operations. Even though the company partners with Birmingham, Ala.-based Shipt on online grocery pickup, Redner’s has also launched its own Redner Ready pickup program, which will be rolled out to a different store every week until it’s available at every store in the chain.
But again, Redner’s focus on foodservice innovation can’t be underestimated. Back at the commissary, Chef Tim is showing off his combi steam oven and blast chiller. As he explains the intricacies of crispy chicken skin, humidity and oven temperatures, he ruminates on what’s unique about Redner’s foodservice operation.
“You know what?” he says. “It’s not just one person. Always remember that. I mean, we have a phenomenal team, starting with the family, the leadership, especially in the marketing department, those guys are the best. But this grill right over here ...”