STORE OF THE MONTH: Striking gold

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STORE OF THE MONTH: Striking gold

A little over four months after unveiling what Eric Stille considers his company's farthest-flung supermarket location, in Roseville, Calif., it's clear that Nugget Markets has also at last made the leap from local Yolo County independent to bona fide industry trailblazer.

Strolling the aisles of this striking 57,000-square-foot showplace in early June, Stille -- a whip-smart yet easygoing fourth-generation grocer who took the helm of his company a little over a decade ago -- exudes an air of pride more befitting the coach of a winning sports team than a retail c.e.o.

But that kind of attitude is to be expected from Stille. He's the chief architect of the Woodland, Calif.-based retailer's celebrated servant/leadership culture, born of his determination to foster a work atmosphere where all associates -- from the highest-ranking executive (that would be Stille's father, Gene Stille, Nugget's chairman of the board) to the newest departmental "teammate" -- are appreciated, even cherished. It's a crucial ingredient in the grocer's competitive strategy.

The Roseville Nugget Market, in Park Plaza at the corner of Fairway Drive and Pleasant Grove Blvd., seamlessly blends the familiar and conventional with unique specialty products, all with retail flair reminiscent of a European food marketplace. Stille says the store represents "the best of the best" of Nugget's collective efforts to date, topped off with a double shot of personalized touches against a backdrop where no detail goes unnoticed.

At this store open-air marketing is paired perfectly with up-market products and specialty departments such as a full-service kitchen, a natural- living department, and a juice and espresso bar. The market applies an approach to grocery marketing that's more artful than most, with elaborately designed product displays, classical exterior architecture, contemporary interior design, and heavy use of natural sunlight.

Stille, as always, deflects accolades to his front-line squads, in this case gushing about Nugget's design team, which at Roseville, he says, "has done a phenomenal job creating an exciting destination, and our associates throughout the entire company, all of whom greatly contributed to growing our product selection and training our new associates."

The store is staffed by about 135 associates who epitomize the most upbeat, can-do people on the planet. "The energy and enthusiasm are incredible," says Stille, adding that a large portion of the store's associate roster hails from the Roseville area, giving the unit a strong connection to the community.

There's no shortage of enthusiasm at Nugget. Many employees affirm that they love their jobs and relish an environment that they say celebrates everyday victories and major milestones alike -- and that also provides opportunities to advance both personally and professionally.

Case in point: One recent day at the store, an impromptu pep rally breaks out at the front of the store in honor of Joseph Butler, facilities manager, who is presented with a black T-shirt emblazoned with a red Superman "S" logo. Butler earned the shirt for his "positive attitude and passionate guest service," explains Kedrian Brown, assistant store director. "It's the most coveted shirt in our company, and one of the highest honors an individual can receive." Indeed, customer service, notes Brown, "is our most important job."

Brown, who joined Nugget when it operated just four stores and has held a variety of positions of increasing responsibility over the years, embodies one of the retailer's defining strategies: recruiting from within. The store director is the fulcrum of the process.

"The goal of our store director teams is to bring out the best in their associates," says Stille. "As we get stronger and stronger as a company each year, the internal growth of our longtime associates is what has allowed us to grow."

One key longtimer is Nugget's general manager and Stille's right-hand man, Chris Carpenter, who joined the operation almost 20 years ago as an entry-level associate in the produce department. An assistant store manager back then in the same store that Carpenter was assigned to, Stille recalls vividly what his father Gene said shortly after bringing Carpenter aboard: "I just hired the Babe Ruth of produce." Adds Stille, "Chris came in, and he just made his mark."

As Stille and Carpenter interact with each other and the Roseville store's team members, it's clear that the duo has perfected a management two-step: Stille primes the pump with strategic direction and long-term vision; then Carpenter makes it all click.

The two execs agree that Nugget's bottom-up leadership style, extensive on-the-job training, promotion from within, and "a mindset of being one family," as Stille puts it, have played equally important roles in evolving Nugget Markets into a successful and wildly popular grocer, operating nine namesake banners and three Food 4 Less locations with a work force of 1,500.

Local store makes good

Local journalist Jeff Hudson, a staff writer for the Davis Enterprise, recalls that when he moved to the Sacramento, Calif. area in 1995, "Nugget Markets was a local story, pertaining to Yolo County. They operated some friendly but not exceptional medium-sized markets in Davis and Woodland."

Hudson today describes the indie's Davis location as the "power place" for shopping. "As a community journalist, when I go into the 'Big Nugget' -- a newer store on East Covell at Pole Line -- I know I'm going to run into elected officials, school principals, university administrators, people from the teacher's union." Not surprisingly, Hudson admits to doing "a lot of newspaper business while I'm buying groceries."

Hudson says the local grocer has become a hot regional commodity, opening larger and busier stores in each of the four counties in the Sacramento region, and also in Vacaville, which is technically part of the San Francisco Bay area. What's more, he says, Nugget has "redefined themselves as the cool place to shop wherever they've gone. People say, 'Oh, we're getting a Nugget store,' like it's a badge of honor."

The local reporter also commends Nugget on its savvy selection of sites, including a planned store in the old Southern Pacific railyards in downtown Sacramento, which Hudson says is poised to be the biggest urban redevelopment project west of the Mississippi, with tens of thousands of new housing units.

Hudson also gives high marks to Nugget for charitable ties to the community and for a work force that's "a very friendly, loyal group that stays with the company. I've been chatting with many of the same checkout clerks for years."

Of Nugget's price positioning in the marketplace, Hudson notes, "Some people say that Nugget is kind of high-priced, [but] I think this is a reaction from people accustomed to shopping at price-oriented stores like the old Albertsons, who come to Nugget and see the occasional $75 bottle of wine or the $18 bottle of olive oil."

As pricey as those items might be, Hudson says the grocer has respectable prices on "everyday staples like bread and produce."

Even better then its prices, however, are the fresh departments' superior quality, says Hudson, citing as examples the bread from Nugget's in-store bakery, which outshines product from larger competitors, and a produce department that taps deeply into small local growers, sources that the bigger chain stores don't have.

Nugget's corporate icon is "Market Mom," a Greco-Roman sculpture of a woman hoisting a basket of produce atop her head. She has adorned the exteriors of all of Nugget's stores opened since 2000, and is an apt accompaniment to the retailer's produce personality. At Roseville a crazy-beautiful produce department sets the stage right at the entry point, with a variety of creatively set displays at an outdoor atrium that all but begs customers to come inside.

"As customers' first impression," explains Carpenter, "we view the produce department as something to be reinvented every week. We've been doing outdoor produce merchandising for the past 10 years."

A mix of traditional department fixtures such as refrigerated cases, tables, and carts enables the retailer to play up what Carpenter calls "freestyle produce displays" that contribute a true marketplace ambiance.

Once in the store, shoppers see a prominently placed price-challenge scoreboard beckoning overhead. The initial fresh-market feel is backed up by a picture-perfect produce department that features well over 600 varieties of conventional, organic, local, specialty, ethnic, and seasonal items, as well as an array of fresh herbs, shelf-stable cross-merchandise, juices, a full display of nuts, and a wide selection of pre-cut fruit and vegetables.

Although Nugget's signature produce set relies heavily on dynamic presentation via rotating permanent and seasonal sets, Carpenter adds that each store's department takes on a distinct personality and flow.

At the Roseville store's produce department, the twist is crafty employment of effective vertically merchandised sets, for which items are merchandised from top to bottom on a fixture, rather than from side to side.

By presenting an assortment vertically, the department exposes customers to a greater assortment at eye level, which Carpenter says also allows produce associates to merchandise in a pattern that holds its shape well. The stunning presentation "allows us to do some amazing things," says Carpenter, but "the best thing that came out of the vertical sets was the efficiency."

To reinforce the fresh tone on both sides of the entrance, the Roseville produce department also features show-stopping sculpted ice beds piled high with fresh conventional and organic products that change out every week.

"The beauty of our ice beds all comes down to technique," says Carpenter. "It's all about presentation and creating an image of freshness that our guests are not seeing anywhere else."

Tasteful murals and engaging informational signage abound in produce, as they do throughout the store. The message is about Nugget's products, but also its people, to further convey the retailer's commitment to quality, training, personal service, and education.

Produce flows directly into an eye-popping full-service meat and seafood department, for which Nugget says it maintains the highest standards of service and training for its skillful department associates. They preside over a vast selection of protein products, including all-natural and organic options. Among the fresh brands carried in the Roseville store are Harris Ranch, Prather Ranch Certified Organic Beef, Prairie Fresh Premium Pork, and Superior Farms Lamb. Foster Farms, Coastal Organic, Rocky Junior, and MBA Brand Smart and Organic Smart Chicken are among the fresh poultry brands.

The Roseville Nugget also offers guests a big wave of fresh fish and seafood selections, backed by Santa Cruz, Calif.-based FishWise's color-coded sustainable seafood program.

Using a grading and employee-training system, the stoplight-coded FishWise labeling program helps shoppers make selections based on availability and sustainability. Green means an item is readily available, hails from steady stocks, and was caught or raised in a way that isn't damaging to the environment. Yellow means there are some issues surrounding the product. Red, of course, warns consumers the species is either in danger of being depleted or is harvested in an environmentally unfriendly way.

Additionally, Nugget's meat and seafood department specialists are available to answer questions and provide cooking tips and recipes.

For those who prefer to forgo preparation, the Roseville store also features a bounty of restaurant-quality, seasonally rotated, ready-to-cook entrees prepared in the meat department. Shoppers can choose from an assortment of extensive entrees, such as burgundy pepper tri-tip steaks, meat loaf, New York peppercorn steaks, spinach-stuffed flank steak, and bacon-wrapped filet mignon from the beef family. There's also plenty to choose from in the prepared pork entree family, including apple plum baby back ribs, bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, stuffed pork pinwheel, and stuffed pork chops.

Among the oven-ready seafood selections are chipotle-seasoned salmon filets, marinated catfish filets, prosciutto-wrapped stuffed prawns, scallop kabobs, stuffed sole, and stuffed salmon filets. The poultry entree lineup includes bacon-wrapped semi-boneless chicken with wild rice shiitake mushroom stuffing, chicken Cordon Bleu, stuffed game hens and turkey breast, and Caribbean chicken strips. Rosemary and garlic lamb roast and seasoned rack of lamb, along with a nice array of vegetable-based entrees, such as mixed vegetable kabobs, stuffed portabella mushrooms, and vegetable fajitas, are also at the ready.

Also gaining in popularity in the meat department is a proprietary sausage line made from natural and organic beef, all-natural pork, veal, and boneless/skinless chicken thighs. The store-ground sausage program, the brainchild of Wayne Rudi, assistant director, meat operations, took wing in Nugget's East Covell store in 2000, with five pounds of mild Italian.

"It is my vision to bring back sausage as a healthy, wholesome lifestyle choice that's good for you," declares Rudi. The low-fat, low-sodium sausages are made by hand and enhanced with all-natural flavoring, herbs, spices, and custom-blended seasonings that contain no MSG, phosphates, nitrates, or nitrites.

A large self-service meat case blends seamlessly with the extensive service cases, and features a display of protein items that runs the gamut from conventional, natural, and organic beef to pork, lamb, and poultry. Many items feature on-pack labels and recipes, all in the interest of helping shoppers figure out what's for dinner.

And speaking of dinner: The gourmet kitchen in Nugget's Roseville store turns out what can be accurately described as a dizzying collection of quality items for all dayparts, including grab-and-go fare, drinks, and snacks.

"Our kitchen is dedicated to preparing real food with true flavors," notes executive chef Rachael Levine. "We do not mask our foods with preservatives to make them last longer. We don't prepare dishes that are so complicated that the natural flavor of the components is lost. It's quite simple, but it's what sets us apart."

The kitchen further offers an excellent special events menu, from which shoppers can order appetizers, hearty meals, exotic dishes, and fine desserts.

Additionally, a tea and espresso bar in the area also whips up fresh-squeezed juices and fruit-based smoothies.

Adjacent to the kitchen is a specialty cheese department featuring some 400 varieties, many of which hail from California-based cheesemakers. Near the specialty cheese department and service deli is an expansive assortment of fresh salsas, spreads, dips, olives, and pre-made grab-and-go salads, fruits, and vegetables.

A new addition at Roseville is an authentic Italian gelato bar offering a colorful assortment of the centuries-old frozen Italian delicacy. The store also offers a host of scratch-made desserts and signature hearth-baked artisan breads such as sourdoughs, rustic French and Italian loaves, and seasonal and daily specials.

Tempting pastries and desserts beckon from the bulging bakery cases, which house an assortment of high-quality sweet goods, many of which are made with European-style butter and premium imported extracts and flavors.

At present, Nugget's bakery lineup is 85 percent trans-fat free, notes Stille, quipping that the remaining "15 percent is the tough part."

In the spirit

To help wash all this down is the Roseville Nugget's wine, beer, and spirits department. Boasting what Nugget says is the largest premium imported wine selection in the area, the department also houses a comprehensive inventory of wines from California vintners, plus over 200 lagers and ales, and superior domestic and imported spirits.

The store carries a particularly large selection of chardonnay, which is now the most broadly popular varietal, according to Larry Otterness, the store's knowledgeable and friendly wine steward, who was in the wine industry for over a decade prior to joining Nugget Market.

As Otterness explains, "We have a really extensive, explorative wine community here," peopled with shoppers "who are curious and always willing to try new stuff." What's more, "We have more nationally accredited beer judges per capita here in Roseville than anywhere else in the country." As such, while it's a given that the store carries what he terms "a great selection of domestic brews," he's even prouder of his imports. "I'm burning through more Belgian beers right now than our local California brews."

The steward presides over wine tastings every Friday night, a task he relishes. "I love my job, which is just so much fun," says Otterness. "I not only get to do what I most enjoy, but I also get to interact and educate our guests. We're all running our own shows."

It's empowerment backed by teamwork. "We've all got each other to support and help us," continues Otterness. "Everyone kind of falls in step together. In the same way that I'm able to take chances in ordering, I can also take chances in other areas, because I know everyone will rise to occasion. We are empowered to think big."


Space to 'enjoy and learn'

A herd of store specialists roams throughout Nugget's stores to answer questions and help guests. Among them is natural living specialist Annie Dryer, who heads up Roseville's store-within-a-store healthy-living department that features several distinct sections for men, women, and children, as well as offerings for special dietary, lifestyle, and skin care needs.

Beyond the many vitamins and herbs; athletic nutrition products and supplements; bath, body, and hair care items; and homeopathic and aromatherapy products, the department also features a healthy-living resource center, welcoming guests to access a range of diverse reference materials and literature in a cozy setting.

"We want to offer shoppers a place to take the time to enjoy and learn about the many different things we have to offer," says Dryer, who is on-site five days a week to assist customers with questions and hear their comments or concerns. As a backup she's got a community bulletin board in the department, which invites guests to post comments or questions.