Famed American chef, author and TV personality James Beard once said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
This commonality in the human experience makes issues surrounding food particularly significant. For 70 years, PFMA has dedicated its work to improving access to healthy foods, better jobs and more opportunities in the food and beverage retail industry.
“Our business really is food. It’s bringing people together, it’s bringing issues to the forefront, it’s improving the quality and the climate of Pennsylvania business for the food industry,” said Alex Baloga, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association.
The business of food
When Christy Spoa got out of the U.S. Army in 1957, he headed back to the family’s grocery store in Ellwood City. As a 100-year-old, family-owned community business, every day was different.
“As an independent particularly, as a single store operator, you wore a lot of hats. You might be dealing with the insurance agent in the morning, a buyer in the afternoon and some type of maintenance issue later on,” Spoa said.
“Being in an association, you had an opportunity to learn from others’ experiences. We all had the same issues, maybe in a little different way, but they were basically all the same. For me, it was an education.”
Spoa joined the PFMA Board of Directors in 1987 and was elected chair in 1993. Through his involvement, he realized the importance of his voice as an independent grocer. He had never been to Harrisburg or Washington, D.C., but quickly learned the impact he could make on legislators.
“There was no voice for the independent operator,” he said. “Most of us at that time thought the only people who had a voice were the large chains. And when you talked to the large chains, they were actually glad that the independents were getting involved, because they felt it was a necessary part of the equation.”
Scott Hartman, president and CEO of Rutter’s Holdings, Inc., joined the PFMA Board of Directors in 1999, serving as chair from 2007 to 2008. His father, Stewart Hartman, was board chair from 1995 to 1997.
“This year is 275 years with our farm, 101 years with our dairy and 52 with our convenience store. We’ve been in the food industry a lot of different ways for a lot of years, and Pennsylvania Food Merchants kind of sums it up—that’s what we do,” Hartman said.
Hartman’s board experience allowed him to lead, learn from and exchange ideas with other retailers and suppliers in the industry. “The good thing is, the people in convenience and grocery, for the most part, share, so it was a good opportunity to hear what other people are doing, hear what their concerns are and shape some of the issues of the day.”
While chair, one of Hartman’s priorities was improving technology. Websites and apps were new, and it took time to convince businesses to embrace them. “I remember doing the interviews with various industry magazines saying, ‘Explain what a website is, and why would anyone in the convenience store industry want one?’”
Over the years, Spoa helped to incorporate wholesalers into the association. He worked with the board to tackle food stamp and coupon chargeback issues. Hartman helped to establish and grow the PFMA Thomas R. and Laura Ridge Scholarship. He also focused on evolving PFMA into a self-sustaining association supported through member dues.
The association has expanded in diversity, reach and impact through its history, working to improve and advance the priorities of the food industry in Pennsylvania, Baloga said. PFMA now supports retailers, wholesalers, small and large distributors, CPG companies, suppliers and others working through the food chain in the commonwealth.
Strength in numbers
Whether attending a conference in Chicago or rallying with other associations in D.C., Spoa discovered a large, unified voice through PFMA. The association often organized a “day on the hill” for food retailers to gather and speak with legislators on timely issues.
“We’d all go in mass. Instead of two of us showing up, it was 25 of us showing up—it was strength in numbers,” Spoa said. I had no experience. I didn’t think they really cared about a single store operator, but I found out that they did, and the same in D.C. We all had a purpose, and we all knew what the issue was.”
PFMA comprises everything from single-store mom and pop shops to multinational companies. The association provides the same benefits and support to every member, Baloga said.
“We only succeed as a group. The food industry is very interconnected, very interdependent, because everyone goes there, so we’re all facing the same issues,” he said. “That’s become even more apparent over the years as the channels have bled into one another.”
The issues on PFMA’s agenda in recent years have included alcohol reform, labor, supply chain, new services, truck driver shortages, COVID-19 regulations and more, Baloga said. “All of those things have been challenges that we’ve tried to help tackle.”
Lisa Dell’Alba, president and CEO of Square One Markets, Inc., and current PFMA board chair, stresses the value in networking through the association. Sharing best practices and working together to advocate for the industry are key. “It’s really important we are all a team. At the end of the day we all support each other in terms of providing necessary things for our customers and for the folks in the state of Pennsylvania.”
An extended family
Spoa and Hartman developed lifelong relationships through their work in the industry and with PFMA. To this day, they meet or bump into people they worked with on PFMA priorities.
“Everybody in the food industry is extended family,” Spoa said. “We were competitors, but we were all willing to help each other. I don’t know if you find that in a lot of industries, but you do find that in the food industry.”
Dell’Alba has relied on her PFMA relationships many times through the years. “I think it’s important to stay connected to others in the industry that do what we do, especially over the last two to three years, where there’s been a lot of uncertainty, a lot of trying times. Camaraderie is really important. I joined PFMA to make sure that I was meeting other folks that I could learn from, network with and commiserate with at times when it’s necessary.”
It’s also more than business. PFMA members work hard to serve their communities, supporting local sports teams, schools, fundraisers, charities and social events.
“It’s a people business,” Baloga said. “I’m proud of the work that our members do and to be able to work with such a great group of people. They’re not only great businesspeople, they are even better people. …What really makes me the proudest is the work they do in the community to make Pennsylvania better.”
“I just enjoy being around food people. I miss the business, I miss the people,” Spoa said, “but boy it’s a whole new set of issues today.”
With a solid foundation, PFMA is poised for future success.
“The food industry isn’t going away,” Hartman said. “People eat—whether it’s through economic ups and downs or through pandemics. People eat things that we sell. The idea is to be advocates on how we can sell more stuff, and what that stuff is, because we’re very good at selling food and services.”
A history of strong leadership helps PFMA’s members stay aware of and involved in important issues, Spoa said. “I think we’ve always had good leadership from Al Vicks who started, to Dave McCorkle who I worked with for all the years I was on the board and now to Alex who is doing a bang-up job. I think the future is bright. I think the industry future is bright.”
PFMA boasts a growing membership with strong momentum, Baloga said. The association continues to tackle issues that matter to its members, and the public has a heightened sense of respect and appreciation for retailers thanks to their dedication during the pandemic.
“Our future is very bright with this group of members behind us.”
It’s been said that change is the only constant in life. The Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association certainly has navigated many industry and policy changes over its 70-year history. Yet it also boasts years of steady leadership, growth and service.
“In recent years, the PFMA family has grown to include many representatives of the candy, tobacco and beverage industries; gaming companies; and specialty food distributors,” said Dave McCorkle, past PFMA president. “The growth has made PFMA’s message to policy makers even stronger.”
McCorkle had his first brush with PFMA in 1982. At the time, President Al Vicks requested a presentation on a new statewide crime prevention initiative developed by Gov. Dick Thornburgh. McCorkle presented with Philadelphia’s then-District Attorney Ed Rendell on behalf of the organization.
“Ed’s presentation was particularly effective, and PFMA became a major supporter of the statewide crime prevention initiative,” McCorkle said. “Several months later, I accepted a position in PFMA’s Harrisburg office, and in 1986 became president upon Al’s retirement.”
In McCorkle’s 34 years as president, the association continued to prioritize public safety, crime prevention, loss prevention and organized retail crime prosecution. “PFMA has led efforts over the decades to increase penalties for passing bad checks and dealing with organized crime,” he said.
“Never having worked in a grocery store or a convenience store, I learned a great deal about the operations of our members’ stores and how the state and federal governments could impact how our members run their stores,
Several PFMA staff served the association for decades under McCorkle’s tenure. Autumn Thomas (right) joined PFMA in 1988, taking an entry-level position with Pennsylvania Coupon Redemption Services (PCRS). She moved onto several roles and projects at the association and currently serves as president of PCRS.
The creation of PCRS and MEMO were two major developments for PFMA, she said. “These for-profit subsidiaries provided association members, particularly independent food retailers, with important business services. It provided the association with millions of dollars in revenue over the years to support government relations and membership programs.”
Thomas said the Scanning Certification Program and Responsible Tobacco Sale Certification Program also were significant wins for PFMA. She worked to research, analyze and collect data on scanner accuracy and compliance with tobacco sales to learn what worked and what didn’t. Thanks to this evidence-based approach and the support of various PFMA stakeholders, Thomas said both programs earned national recognition.
“Both of these were innovative programs that improved members’ policies and operations,” said Randy St. John (right), who helped to create the programs with Thomas. St. John joined PFMA in 1989 as vice president of membership development, then oversaw membership and government relations as senior vice president.
“Never having worked in a grocery store or a convenience store, I learned a great deal about the operations of our members’ stores and how the state and federal governments could impact how our members run their stores,” he said. PFMA’s work was particularly important because its members were so impacted by government regulations and laws, he added.
While St. John was lobbying, he helped lay the groundwork for the reform of beer and wine sales in food retail locations. Elizabeth Peroni (left), past director of communications, said that was a large undertaking by PFMA staff. “That was a big issue that we worked on for years and years,” Peroni said.
In her 24 years with PFMA, Peroni was impressed by how hard members worked. “They were very passionate about the industry. It was always a joy to talk to our members, and we had many multigenerational families who started by sweeping floors when they were kids.”
There were challenges, of course, but overall, everyone worked well together. And Peroni noted how nice it was to have a consistent, core group involved on the PFMA board for so many years.
Thomas experienced plenty of change in operations. When she first started, PCRS had close to 20 employees and did much of the work manually. Fax machines were the latest technology, and the internet wasn’t yet available. “Back in the mid-90s, PCRS had employees working from 4 a.m. to midnight to keep up with producing the various client payments and support documents, all of which were paper,” she said. “We currently have two employees in the PFMA office as we’ve been able to automate many of the functions previously handled by staff.”
After all their hard work, staff also found time to socialize. Thomas recalled costumed Halloween parties, summer picnics and staff appreciation days where upper management washed employees’ cars. “We were there to do a job, but there was recognition of us putting in the hours. A good effort was made to create an employee-first culture and have some fun.”
She also appreciates the support, autonomy and flexibility developed at PFMA. “The life/work balance has always been good and has only gotten better.”
McCorkle is proud of the work he’s witnessed and said PFMA is set up for success in the future.
“Everyone should be pleased that PFMA directors and staff have accomplished impressive management and program objectives, and that members fully support the annual Ridge Scholarship,” he said. “PFMA’s Board of Directors and elected leaders have provided extraordinary volunteer service to the association, resulting in a solid foundation for addressing emerging issues.”
Liz Kemmery, director of communications