Tried and True and Something New

Photography by Vito Palmisano.

The County Market in Springfield, Ill., serves shoppers in the shadow of the Illinois State Capitol building just blocks away. The gleaming dome is easily visible from the store's parking lot and is a strong reminder about the history and roots of this community. Retail Leader visited the Springfield store to sit down for an exclusive interview with Rich Neimann Jr., president and CEO.

The Springfield location is one of 43 County Market stores owned and operated by Niemann Foods across Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri. Niemann Foods also operates 26 County Market Express/Pick-A-Dilly Convenience Stores, 16 Health Mart Pharmacies, 14 Save-A-Lots, six Pet Supplies Plus, six Ace Hardware stores, one Cub Foods and one Food Depot.

A commitment to offering high quality fresh food is a key part of the corporate DNA, says Niemann. "In a bigger sense, I think we represent good, high quality food. Our history is low price; our background is discount groceries. So as we've evolved over the years with new services, perishables, marketing, though our core is still discount grocery. We bring good variety, low prices and outstanding quality fresh food."

Niemann Foods was founded in 1917 by Ferd Niemann Sr. and his brother Steve, and opened its first store and a wholesale operation known as Niemann Brothers that year in Quincy, Ill. By 1930, the family business had 10 corner grocery stores and a thriving wholesale business. In 1940, the first full-service grocery store, called "Food Center," opened in Quincy.

The 1960s saw Niemann Foods move away from the wholesale operation and turn to SuperValu as its wholesaler. The 1970s and 1980s brought more store openings, including the current locations in Champaign and Springfield. Today, Niemann Foods owns and operates 100 retail stores, and its plans for 2017 are clear: $1 billion in sales and a celebration of 100 years in business.

Neimann Foods' aggressive growth plan is backed by a commitment to innovation. The company tests and implements new strategies and concepts on a regular basis in remodeled locations or new stores. The company embraces the concept of constant evolution as a means to keep the brand relevant and extend the life of the banner.

"We have a major renovation going on in Hannibal, Mo., right now. There are two important additions to the store concept there. One is we're doing an Oriental Kitchen, with restaurant-quality Oriental food inside the store. We're also doing an outside smokehouse program at that store," says Niemann. "Those are two concepts you won't find in any other store but Hannibal, but a couple of years from now you may see it in this [Springfield] store and every other if it's successful."

About 10 years ago, Niemann Foods looked at its County Market stores against the context of a rapidly changing retail landscape. The company began a year-long project to rediscover its history and evolve the County Market brand. What came of that project was the Traditions concept, which reinforces the core values that made Niemann's successful and balances them against the company's drive for innovation. The concept has been integrated into all County Market stores.

"We realized that every family event or celebration revolves around food."

–Rich Niemann,

Niemann Foods

"We decided, 'We are what we are. We're Midwest folks.' We realized that every family event or celebration revolves around food," says Niemann. "We're Midwest; we're common sense; we're fresh products; we know how to take care of people. We brought all of that together to become what we know now as our Traditions store.

"That brand evolution is what keeps us strong. Our associates are creating the evolution of the brand," he says. "The ideas come from within, from our associates; they come from everywhere. If you can create an environment that fosters the notion of trying things and not being afraid to fail, that's when it all comes together."

Niemann explains that the Traditions concept goes beyond the physical design of the store and even beyond the product mix. "It's also people. I mentioned the remodel in Hannibal going on right now. That whole team is going through Traditions training. Everything that goes into our brand at Traditions County Market is important...especially the people."

Says Gerry Kettler, director of consumer affairs for Niemann Foods, "Traditions is all about a comfortable atmosphere where we provide excellent food knowledge, outstanding value and genuine customer care."

Niemann points to the company's involvement in share groups, sponsored by the National Grocers Association, as another key strategy for generating new ideas. By participating in these groups, Niemann Foods gains access to a nationwide peer network with virtually limitless resources.

"We've been involved in share groups for years and years," he says. "I think share groups are one of the most important collaborative efforts that an independent operator has.

"If we walk over to the meat shop, I can show you three or four recipes that are the direct result of a share group member."

–Rich Niemann,

Niemann Foods

"There is always one company that is a best practices company in something. We've been the beneficiary of help from some really good operators. If we walk over to the meat shop, I can show you three or four recipes that are the direct result of a share group member. It can be as simple as a recipe or as complex as you can imagine," says Niemann.

New recipes and even new products are commonplace at County Market stores. Niemann explains how the company brought back the iconic Garcia's Pizza brand, well known to anyone who has lived close to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, campus. A long-time favorite of students and the community, Garcia's and Niemann Foods reached an agreement whereby pizza shops would be operated within County Market stores, offering the familiar fare by the slice once again. "It was my favorite pizza when I was in school," says Niemann, joking that he didn't eat "much" pizza in college.

A corporate culture of merit-based hiring and promotion rounds out the Niemann Foods philosophies. The company's commitment to equal opportunity for advancement is strong in the four-generation family business, a value instilled in family members involved in the business.

"The mantra in our company, and it's one I preach all of the time, is that there is no natural succession for me or anybody else," says Niemann. "I have three boys that are in the business now, and I've told them, 'We'll give you a job, but the career is up to you.'"

Niemann credits his father with instilling the company with core values that persist today. Along with his younger brother Chris, Niemann Foods executive vice president and chief financial officer, Niemann was raised to share his father's dedication to hard work and honesty. "He certainly sets the tone. I've never met anyone more honest than my dad, without question."

In 2000, the company instituted an Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) that provides employees a financial interest in the company. This benefit, along with 401(k) profit sharing, medical and dental insurance, paid vacations and holiday pay, makes County Market stores an attractive place to work, and the company's turnover rate is low. Niemann explained the investment in its associates succinctly: "It helps us attract and retain good people."

True to form, the company's guiding principles are printed on the back of every business card: "Take care of our associates, our customers, have fun selling!"

Jennifer Acevedo is editor-in-chief of Retail Leader magazine.