“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.”
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.”