“Cheers” got it right—sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. That’s a concept that the Boyer’s family has embraced as a neighborhood grocery store chain, and it’s a feeling that Dean Walker intends to preserve.
It’s been more than two decades since Walker joined the Boyer’s Food Markets family. Walker took the helm as president 10 years ago, and he and his team have worked with Boyer’s to transition ownership over that time. As the remaining Boyers retire, Walker will assume ownership of the supermarket chain this year. He’s positioning Boyer’s for a successful future by balancing its tradition of community with upgrades and modernization of its stores.
Boyer’s started as a local corner grocery store in 1949, embracing and maintaining a neighborhood feeling. “Boyer’s operates smaller footprint stores than most of the national competition,” Walker said. “We are in smaller, often rural, communities and need to maintain the identity of the neighborhood grocer as a point of differentiation to the larger national chains.”
That neighborhood feeling means focusing on unmatched service. Compared to larger supermarket chains, Boyer’s size might appear to be a disadvantage in some instances, Walker said. But this independent grocer has an edge when it comes to convenience and assistance. “We try to use our size as an
advantage. In and out quick, but your able to get basically everything you want and need in a smaller, more friendly footprint.”
As the chain expands, it’s important to maintain the local feeling. Walker said that’s possible by working closely with the communities they serve. “We’re hiring staff from within these communities, giving the kids in the towns a place to work, working with the local organizations and supporting all of their events. We’re just like one of your neighbors.”
Walker acknowledged that it can be challenging to keep up with larger companies that have access to more resources. “Customer’s expect the same website experience, the same online ordering experience or the same retail prices as companies that have endlessly larger buying power, staff and resources than we do,” he said.
“We have an ongoing remodel program, and we reinvest literally every dollar we make back into that program. We’re able to do a major remodel to one or two stores every year, and every store has been touched at least once in the last 10 years. We are already cycling back through stores for a second and third time.”
As Boyer’s continues its rennovation program, its Tamaqua store prepares for a revamp. Altough this location is one of the smaller stores, it is one with high-volume traffic. This is the first store to get more than just equipment and decor upgrades.
“This remodel will include our first-ever building expansion,” Walker said. “A 5,000-square foot addition out the front of the building will allow the entire store to be remerchandised, and every perishable and refrigerated department will be expanded. This will include a brand-new relocated bakery department, produce department and fresh foods to go in the new addition. The entire focus on this remodel and expansion, besides replacing old cases, is to expand perishables and add more fresh food to go.”
Two retail buildings also will be constructed and attached to the store, housing a relocated PA Wine and Spirits store and a proposed beer distributor. The three businesses will all be accessible through the main entrance, creating a convenient, one-stop shopping experience for Tamaqua customers.
The Tamaqua remodel is a huge project for Boyer’s that will require a lot of resources through the spring, Walker said. Once that project is complete, they will shift their focus to the next store on the list.
”We already have the next stores chosen for upgrades, and once Tamaqua is complete, we’ll begin a smaller project remodel, and a larger one behind that. It never stops, we’ll just continue to reinvest constantly to make as many improvements as we can with every resource we have available.”
This dedication and commitment to their stores always circles back to Boyer’s first priority—its customers.
“We pride ourselves on our customer service,” Walker said. “We train on it endlessly—we’ve branded it as ‘Red Shirt Service.’ We hope every customer leaves feeling that we care, they matter, they’re important and that we do everything possible to meet or exceed their expectations.
Masks, vaccinations and sanitization fogging machines had never been concerns for Andrea Karns, vice president of marketing and sales at Karns Quality Foods. Yet 2020 ushered in its own worries and rules.
“For a grocery retailer, these are conversations and thoughts that we never knew we would be in a position to have,” Karns said.
When COVID-19 hit the scene nearly a year ago, the food retail industry quickly adjusted procedures for customer and employee safety. Deemed essential services, grocery stores remained opened, but faced an unknown battle against a new disease. Workers who have faithfully left their homes to keep supplies and services available to their communities now wait to receive the vaccine.
“We have been able to operate, and I recognize how fortunate we are to have been in that position,” Karns said. “At the same time, the drawback is the same. We have been operating and working to traverse the pandemic at the same time as society. As a company, we had to make decisions for the health and safety of our shoppers as well as our team members during unknown times.”
As the medical community and government worked to develop guidelines and regulations in response to the pandemic, Karns said they were doing the same and looking to other countries or states for additional guidance. Staying proactive allowed Karns to implement temperature testing before it was a state mandate and to quickly order and operate sanitization fogging machines in its stores. Most recently, all Karns locations completed upgrades to their air handling filtration systems, providing additional protection to team members, shoppers and vendors. Even though some practices have been relaxed, Karns said their nine locations continue to monitor customer traffic to ensure it remains appropriate for the size of the store.
“We layered onto the mandates to make sure we were taking every step possible to keep our team members, our shoppers and our vendor partners safe and to keep everyone healthy.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Karns said they have maintained staffing. The roles have changed over time, though, to accommodate new rules, for example shifting employees out of salad or hot bar positions to maintenance or cleaning. “We didn’t cut our labor hours, we’ve just shifted those hours into different tasks and duties,” Karns said.
With its quick response to safety and sanitation, Karns Quality Foods, like other grocery stores across the nation, found itself receiving praise for the dedication of its hard-working team. While so many industries went remote this past year, those working in grocery retail continued to leave their homes to provide essential services. Karns said early support for essential workers was welcome, but that seems to have fallen to the wayside in recent months.
Karns believes the state has done its best to recognize and support grocery workers to this point, but the vaccination process has left her “hugely disappointed.”
“Early in the pandemic, essential workers, grocery workers, were being applauded and praised, and there were demands for recognition to be in place,” she said. “The vaccination situation of being in 1B, then being in 1B while other people were expedited into 1A, for a lot of my team members, has been a deflating moment.”
Many of the concerns and questions Karns hears from employees revolve around the availability of vaccines and mask wearing. Many of the answers remain unknown at this point. Karns said her team often asks what vaccination will look like for them, when they can expect to receive a vaccine and if they can anticipate the establishment of a clinic for workers.
For employees working outside of the home, it is extra challenging to track and schedule vaccination appointments. “That’s not a luxury a lot of our team members have, to be able to have that freedom, that accessibility to the internet and that time,” she said “We are all working, we’re all working outside of our homes in the stores where we can’t just be on our phone refreshing or on a desktop to get these highly coveted appointments.”
Karns Quality Foods does not have pharmacies in its stores. Karns said they are working to connect with local or national chain pharmacies to establish some type of program or clinic for employees. They have shared the estimated number of employees eligible to receive vaccines with several pharmacies, but at this time, pharmacies don’t have enough information about their vaccine supplies to offer such a program.
When vaccines are available, Karns said the company has established an incentive program to make it easier for team members to take the time needed for vaccination. Employees will receive a $50 payment in total for getting their vaccination, and managers are encouraged to provide flexible scheduling when possible. Karns hopes that this gesture provides a thank you to employees going out of their way to get vaccinated.
“Communities have to come together to make sure folks are able to get it when you have those appointments,” she said.
In the meantime, Karns looks toward the future with cautious optimism. Even though she foresees the need to continue wearing masks through this year, and essential worker vaccination remains a challenge, she has noticed cooperation from customers as mask mandates and other regulations continue.
“The compliance from our shoppers has greatly increased over the last few months. People have come to embrace or surrender—maybe a little bit of both—the best practices of shopping with only one person per family and wearing a mask properly. I’m only hoping that continues to increase.”
What are your top three legislative priorities in 2021? I spent over two decades with the United States Marshals Service, so protecting Pennsylvanians and their communities is my top priority. I have legislation in the works to toughen penalties for those trafficking the lethal drug fentanyl and for those who trespass and vandalize critical infrastructure in the commonwealth. I also continue to be committed to making sure our schools are safe and secure.
What are the important issues facing your district? My district as well as the rest of Pennsylvania has suffered greatly over the last year due to the COVID pandemic and specifically the negative effects caused by the heavy hand of government. I hear from small business owners every day who are struggling, and we are fighting to make a friendlier tax environment for them and provide assistance where we can.
Where do you shop locally for food? My family and I shop at several different grocery stores and markets locally: Wegmans, Karns, Weis, but primarily we shop at Giant.
What is your favorite vacation destination, and why? My favorite place to vacation is Stone Harbor, New Jersey. I have been going on family vacations to Stone Harbor since I was a kid, and now every summer my wife and I take our children.
What are the biggest challenges for grocers in your district? Like many industries, grocers have faced a series of challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as worker safety, product inventory, sanitization practices, changing and reducing store hours and now distributing vaccines.
What are your biggest challenges and successes as a legislator? The biggest challenge is trying to build a consensus in a state that has such diverse views. The biggest successes I’ve had as a legislator are the passing of Peyton’s Law, the increase and expansion of school safety, welfare reform and the legalization of medical marijuana.
What is your favorite food or meal to cook? There is nothing like firing up the grill, throwing on some burgers and having a family meal on a nice summer day.
What do you like to do for fun? Spending time with my family and friends is at the top my list. I also enjoy riding my motorcycle and playing the drums.
Timing is everything. Just two weeks after the U.S. shut down amid the coronavirus outbreak, Jeff Allen sold his family’s nearly 110-year-old distribution company.
On March 27, Allen Brothers Wholesale Distributors became a division of National Convenience Distributors (NCD), along with HLA Distributors and J. Polep Distribution Services.
While Allen Brothers and the rest of the wholesale distribution industry dealt with tremendous challenges in 2020, Allen had the benefit of knowing he wasn’t facing them alone. “It’s been very helpful for corona, we all were able to support each other,” he said.
Joining forces with two of the country’s top 10 distributors has been “awesome,” Allen said. “The cultures of both companies are very similar, and we all know each other’s employees from over the years. Now that the company is one, operating separate divisions, it’s been amazing.”
Coming under the umbrella of NCD with his good friends at J. Polep and “arch nemesis” at HLA (who Allen now jokes is more like a brother), helped Allen Brothers navigate business during the pandemic without skipping a beat. At the height of the outbreak, they were serving 1,200 stores. Allen Brothers never closed, never missed a delivery, and never laid off or furloughed any employees, he said.
“With the advent of the two other divisions who run their companies the same way, each one of us has something the other one doesn’t have, which is really cool, because now we all have it,” Allen said. “Whether it’s a category, whether it’s technology, whatever that is, we share it with each other to make each division stronger.”
Now 10 months into the pandemic, Allen said they continue to face many of the challenges that have existed since March. Items like hand sanitizers, wipes and masks remain in high demand. Inventory is a challenge. Store closures—temporary or permanent—have impacted the customer base. Fortunately, he said Allen Brothers was as prepared as it could be for an unforeseen situation.
“Our industry, on the wholesale end, has been consolidating in part for the last 10 years. The guys who get to consolidate are the guys who run good companies, good employees, good cultures,” he said.
Although no one anticipated a pandemic, he said that Allen Brothers remained ahead of the curve by staying inventory controlled, focused on freshness and dating and anticipating new trends. Running a family business with the customer at the forefront also helped them focus on immediate customer needs during the pandemic.
“We really take care of our customer. We really know our customer,” Allen said. “They’ve got a wholesaler that’s dependable and delivers on time.”
Allen Brothers primarily serves independent convenience stores, working closely with individual store owners. Maintaining a strong business means communicating with customers, providing timely and accurate delivery and staying on top of technology, Allen said.
For as crazy as it sounds this year, Allen Brothers experienced a 10 percent growth year. “It’s mind boggling. It’s been good for us as a company. It’s good for our employees.”
As the calendar rolls over to a new year, Allen anticipates the effects of 2020 having a long-term impact on the industry’s future. At Allen Brothers and NCD as a whole, staying prepared is key.
“For us, for NCD and the group I’m affiliated with, we’re dealing with structures of preparedness. What do you do when something goes wrong? What do you do when systems go down? We don’t know what the next hurdle is going to be. I don’t know that any of us ever expected to be dealing with a pandemic. I think it’s helped everyone to tighten their belt and roll up their sleeves and say, we’ve got to make sure every facet of our business is operating properly, so when something does go wrong, we are as prepared as we can be.”
With a 110-year foundation behind him, and new resources and support in his toolbox, Allen is focused on staying ahead.
“To me, it’s all about control. Do I have control over my warehouse and distribution center always, so that when something doesn’t go right, we’re in the best situation we can be.”
What are your top three legislative priorities in 2021? I think this year has changed our priorities. I think the priority for right now is the Constitutional Amendment, Senate Bill 1166 that gives the legislature a seat at the table after 21 days of a state of emergency. Of course, we’re going to have a great challenge with our budget, and we just heard DC isn’t going to help us at all, so that will be a huge challenge. And we need to do that because we need to help make sure we can get our businesses back up and going, we’re not increasing taxes on people, all the things that make an economy spiral downward we don’t want to do. So that’s a big challenge. And I think election issues, right off the bat, we have to fix some of the stuff that just happened in this election. I think it’s important that we get to the bottom of this so that we don’t have people who don’t have any confidence in this process at all. We need to find out what happened, where, and we need some questions answered, because that’s been all over the place.
What are the important issues facing your district? Recovery from COVID is the biggest issue facing our district, facing our local government and facing our schools, and probably it’s the same in everybody’s districts. What do we do to move ahead and try to make everybody as whole as we can?
Where do you shop locally for food? Giant Eagle, Shop N Save, that’s where I shop for food.
What is your favorite vacation destination, and why? That’s a tough one, I like every place. I probably enjoy Napa the most. I enjoy wine country. We were in Europe and we went to Alsace in France, to wine country, so I like any vacations that include wine. I like the ambiance around wine. You talk, you listen to music, and I love wine festivals.
What are the biggest challenges for grocers in your district? Keeping their shelves stocked with some things and trying to hold the prices down, because the prices have gone up a whole lot. And having people come into the store—they deliver now—most people do delivery. Those are some of the things where they are challenged. Everybody still has to buy food. No matter what happens to the economy, you still have to buy food.
What are your biggest challenges and successes as a legislator? The challenge is definitely making sure that the people I serve know what is actually happening. Messaging and communicating with the folks in the district is really important. I’m very active on social media. I think I’m the only one—someone told me that the other day—I actually talk to these people. I put a post up, and it’s like a townhall meeting when I put stuff up. It’s a very good way to communicate and keep things running smoothly, because you’re talking to them and you’re telling them. Even in this last year, (when) I was up for election, even people who didn’t like me, or didn’t support me, I would get messages from them—thanks for talking to us, thanks for communicating, I appreciate that. I don’t agree, but I appreciate the dialogue.
Can you describe what it means to you to make history as the first woman elected to be the PA Senate Majority Leader? The day I won, I wasn’t even thinking I was the first woman elected. I was thinking, I’m a Senator, and I’ve been elected. It wasn’t until we left the room there within no time, I started getting all kinds of messages and all kinds of media on it, and I thought, wow, I guess I am. I’m a woman, but I’m a Senator. It’s been kind of nice, because I’ve been getting messages from women from all kinds of states. People I didn’t know who were sending me messages and sending me congratulations, and they were probably somehow tied to politics to know that happened, and that was very, very satisfying. …It really is an honor. And I have folks in Harrisburg... the one person who works with us and is part of our team in the office said, “I want to tell my daughters that I work for the first female majority leader.” It’s really quite an honor.
What is your favorite food or meal to cook? I do love to make lasagna, and I’m really good at it. My nice 100% Italian mother and grandmother, I lived with her growing up. I do love to make lasagna. I like to cook.
What do you like to do for fun? I like to go sit at a winery, I like to listen to music, and I do that all the time. Every chance I get, I listen to music and go somewhere. I know all of the local singers, they are all of my friends because I do that. ...Usually I go to a concert, maybe two, every month.
(This Q&A has been lightly edited for length.)
What are your top three legislative priorities in 2021? First of all, COVID relief is No. 1. This pandemic is getting worse by the day. The Governor in his briefing (December 10) shared a true concern that our hospitals are going to be overwhelmed. So, from our small businesses that have been negatively impacted with the decline of sales, to just regular people who worked and no longer are able to get to work, or are sick from work, we have a ton to do to make sure we get COVID relief to individual families, but also to the small business owners, specifically restaurants, really having a challenging, challenging time.
The second thing is our public schools. So many of our children have been learning through distance or virtual learning, and it is very important that in Harrisburg, we are doing everything we possibly can to be able to fairly fund our schools across the state, and to make sure children have access to the tools they need. Whether they are in rural Pennsylvania or urban Pennsylvania, broadband access is still a challenge, getting laptops and Chromebooks is still too difficult, more than it needs to be. So that’s the second priority.
Then the third priority is for those who are currently in the workforce, or managing several jobs who are underpaid. I look forward to working across the aisle to give Pennsylvanians a long overdue raise in the minimum wage. There has not been a raise in the minimum wage for 12 years. Come next year, it will be 13. All through law school I waited tables, and I’m very sensitive to the fact that we have people who are on the front line in the pandemic who are still seriously underpaid, and we have got to do better. If you work hard all day long, you should be able to put food on your table and keep a roof over your head. But because of the inequities in the standard minimum wage, people are having a harder time than they should be.
I’m incredibly grateful to my colleagues for having the faith and the vision that we collectively share to fight hard for families across Pennsylvania, keeping them at the forefront of our agenda."
What are the important issues facing your district? Back home in southwest Philly in lower Delaware County, I am seeing a lot of challenges as it relates to expanded poverty. All my neighbors work hard, but because certain industries are totally shut down, my neighbors who worked in hospitality or who worked in service at hotels, (for example) downtown at the convention center, (have been particularly affected). The poverty in our area is expanding because people are out of work due to this pandemic.
Some of the priorities for the caucus overlap back home. We need COVID support here, too, so that people can stay in their homes, in their apartments. ...I’ve got people calling me, emailing me on the weekends saying that they’ve got eviction notices, because, of course, the moratorium is expected to expire (in December). I’m very concerned about poverty. I’m very concerned about one of the symptoms of poverty, which is violence—violence in our community. Much of it is handguns, gun violence, but not exclusively. It’s a top concern of mine, and to me. The way you tackle violence is, first of all, making sure there are more opportunities to combat poverty, and to make sure there is more support and intervention for children, teenagers, and young people who are very susceptible to making bad decisions quickly due to a variety of circumstances that also stem from a poorly underfunded education system.
Where do you shop locally for food? Locally, I am often seen in ShopRite. I go to one of Jeff Brown’s (CEO of Brown’s Super Stores) stores a lot. I also like to stop at the Giant, which is nearby. One of the things I hope PFMA will brainstorm on with me is having more access to food in my district. We don’t have a large, major grocery store in my district. Part of it is how my district is drawn. You can go two blocks and go to another district and get to a market, but we still have a bit of food insecurity on this side, so I would love to get PFMA’s feedback on what it takes to do, and brainstorm, even on a multiyear project, to see how we can attract a more major grocer in our area.
What is your favorite vacation destination, and why? I’ll say that if I could go anywhere, I would probably go back to Jamaica. I’ve only been there one time, and at this point, it’s getting to be a while ago. It was almost 10 years ago. But, anywhere with blue waters and light sand and great local food. If I could go anywhere once a year, a dream trip for me is to go to the Caribbean. Two to three hours on a plane and, voila, lovely.
What are the biggest challenges for grocers in your district? One of the challenges is transportation—making sure that there are lots of options so that people who get to the market can get home, or in this pandemic, that people can order. I have done more online orders than I ever thought. I am one of those, I want to go inside the store, I want to push the cart through every aisle, I want to look at the fruit. I have a very hectic schedule. I have been taking advantage of the online ordering, which is usually either within the ShopRite I’m shopping at in the southwest, or they partner with an outside vendor to do the delivery.
What are your biggest challenges and successes as a legislator? The obvious one for me is my entire tenure, my caucus has not been in the majority. My list of demands may be long but, of course, I have to, and I’m proud to work across the aisle with the majority party to make sure that my ideas and my neighbors’ concerns and legislative goals are shared with other colleagues who are not in my area but also see these issues as being important. And this year, I was very happy that Gov. Wolf signed into law my automatic expungement bill that I have been working on for five years. Which sounds like a lot, but in Harrisburg, people have been working on bills for over a decade, so in some regards, it was fast tracked. This bill will make sure that when people are in court, and they are acquitted of all charges, and it’s a non-violent case that they will automatically get their bill of charges expunged from their record within nine months.
Can you describe what it means to you to make history as the first Black woman elected to be the House Minority Leader? It’s truly humbling and an honor. I’m incredibly grateful to my colleagues for having the faith and the vision that we collectively share to fight hard for families across Pennsylvania, keeping them at the forefront of our agenda. I look forward to working with them to ensure that all of the issues that are most important to them back home are uplifted, are amplified, and that we strategically make efforts throughout this session to get the small victories that lead to a big one.
What is your favorite food or meal to cook? My favorite food is pizza. I have to push back and say, “You don’t need any pizza!” It’s great and delicious, but it’s just not something you should consume often! I do enjoy cooking. At holiday time, I like making staple soul food meals for my family, whose roots are in North Carolina. The standards are way up here! You’ve got to spend hours making everything. But on a regular day-to-day, I enjoy fresh vegetables, I eat a lot of fish.
What do you like to do for fun? I enjoy a good Zumba class. Me gusta bailar—I like to dance!
(This Q&A has been lightly edited for length.)