The Saratoga Sun -

Store stresses service

New manager seeks price/service balance, plans store improvements

 

Adam Clark, new Valley Foods Manager, is settling into Valley life and working to keep the family owned store competitive and service oriented.

For Adam Clarke, manager of Valley Foods in Saratoga, operating a grocery store is nothing new; it's been the family business for three generations, starting with his grandfather who opened a grocery store in Nebraska in 1939.

When his grandfather went off to fight in World War II, his grandmother took over running the store. Later, Clarke's father took over the business that had grown from one store to three. While his father ran the family store, Valley Foods co-owner and former Valley resident Tim Lamprecht worked for the family. That relationship was an entrée to Lamprecht and the Clarkes purchasing Valley Foods about 16 years ago.

Lamprecht, a fixture in Saratoga for years, ran the store until earlier this year when he retired and moved back to Nebraska. After Lamprecht's departure, Clarke-who moved to Saratoga in July 2016-took over managing the store.

"I've been doing this pretty much my whole life," Clarke says about running a grocery store. "When we were with Affiliated Foods (a grocery co-op association) we were the longest continually family-owned store in that warehouse."

"My grandfather always used to say that if you take care of your community, they'll take care of you."

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Since Clarke took over Valley Foods, there have been some changes to the way the store is run, but they have been subtle and mostly "under the hood" changes that many customers wouldn't immediately notice.

For one, the store has switched the warehouse, or co-op, from where it purchases many of its goods. Co-ops are a key part of family-owned grocery stores that have been a part of the grocery business landscape for decades. Stores join co-ops and are then able to combine their orders for merchandise in order to get larger volume discounts.

As corporations have taken over more and more of the grocery business, co-ops have had to adapt to changes. Some have gone out of business. Others have merged. About a year ago, Valley Foods changed co-ops to Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG), a Kansas City, Kansas, based co-op that has been around for 90 years.

AWG is also the largest co-op in the country for independent grocers, Clarke said, meaning the group can bring to bear a lot more volume which can mean better prices for consumers. Because of the switch to AWG, the store's house brands have changed, and some prices are different, Clarke said.

"I'm trying to find the happy medium in pricing," Clarke said. "I need to be able to pay my people what they need to make to live here, offer good prices to customers and make some money."

When it comes to prices, freight costs are the biggest problem faced in the Valley, Clarke said. While AWG is the largest grocery co-op in America with warehouses in many places across the U.S., Saratoga is still 10 hours from the nearest warehouse.

Other changes slated are a new loading dock area, and one that many customers will notice; repaving the parking lot. Those projects are some of the many things that go into running the store. There are constant improvements and repairs going on behind the scenes. Compressors for refrigeration systems fail, coolers need repair and maintenance and other equipment needs to be regularly maintained to ensure health and safety is not compromised.

Despite Clarke's efforts to reduce prices, he knows it is difficult to compete against corporate and national chains.

"Walmart can sell something at a profit for less than I can buy it wholesale," Clarke said. "What it comes down to is service; if you walk into a corporate store, people won't know your name, but I try to remember people's names when they come in, even if it takes me a few times to get it right."

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Across the nation, the demise of small-town grocery stores has been well documented. The Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs published a study that documented a collapse in the numbers of grocery stores in rural areas in the mid 2000s.

According to the study, the number of small-town and rural grocery stores declined by 50 percent between 1995 and 2005 in several rural states. The study said the major reason for the decline in rural groceries is the proliferation of corporate owned grocery stores in nearby towns, the relative ease of travel and a demographic shift where more residents of rural areas commute to jobs in nearby cities. A lack of available capital for small business loans has also shut out many entrepreneurs, the report said.

Communities that lose their grocery store not only become "food deserts," a term describing an area with no source for balanced and nutritious food, but such communities also lose what is a key economic engine in many rural areas.

Family owned stores like Valley Foods need to choose what they're going to be good at, Clarke said. It could be local produce, highest quality meats or just a degree of service and friendliness customers won't get elsewhere.

Many small communities wind up shipping wealth out to distant cities, and it often doesn't come back, the study by Center for Rural Affairs said.

For Clarke, Valley Foods in Saratoga is more than just a business, it's a family tradition and a way to be involved in the growth and economic sustainability of the community he and his family call home.

"It may be more expensive to buy an item at a local small-town store," Clarke said. "But it's not a lot more expensive and the money stays in town."

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