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Williamsburg Foods takes new direction

By ANDREA FURLONG

foods
From left, Williamsburg Foods co-owner Cindy Wichmann and store managers Julie Harl and Joe Soukup stand in front of a row of Best Choice products, a brand name that started appearing on shelves three months ago. Since beginning the switch in January from wholesaler Super Valu to Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG), Williamsburg Foods has been able to offer many brand names at lower prices and has traded Super Valu’s Flavorite brand for AWG’s Best Choice.

If you’ve shopped lately at Williamsburg Foods and glimpsed at prices that you could have sworn were higher a few weeks ago, you should know your eyes are not playing tricks on you.

Over the past three months, the grocery store of 37 years has been switching out merchandise previously supplied by Super Valu for the same product or its equivalent, supplied by Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG).

Co-owners Steve Grolmus and his sister Cindy Wichmann said it took one full year to decide to leave the wholesaler it had used on and off for the last 27 years.

 “We felt Super Valu was headed in a different direction than we were. They’re a big corporation and they have a lot of corporate stores, whereas AWG is more about the independent wholesaler, which is what we are,” Wichmann said.

The disparity between Williamsburg Foods and Super Valu became most evident when the economy took a dip in the last few years. As customers’ budgets became strained, the desire to shop locally ranked secondary to shopping affordably. Business took a hit as Wichmann found herself unable to compete with the deals being offered by other area grocery stores. The fixed pricing set by Super Valu did not reflect the needs of a small community facing hard times.

“People would drive to Wal-Mart once a week and pick up the things we couldn’t even begin to compete with,” she said.

Wichmann realized the business would have to make sacrifices beyond customers if it wanted to stay with Super Valu.

“We didn’t want to have to cut benefits or carryout service or customer service by cutting payroll. We wanted to still be able to offer all the things we offer, and we felt the only way to do that was to try to get lower prices,” she said.

After a year of talking it over, Wichmann and her brother bought into Associated Wholesale Grocers, a cooperative wholesaler out of Kansas City, Mo. Because the company is owned by retailers and not shareholders, small business owners like Wichmann have greater flexibility and greater influence in the prices, products and weekly deals they’re able to offer at their location.

“Their pricing and fees for getting the goods and the groceries here are so much more competitive than Super Valu has been. People are hurting right now. The economy is bad and our prices were high. (AWG) has changed a lot of the perspective on small town pricing and tried to keep people shopping local. The only way to do that is to be more competitive and these people are more competitive,” Wichmann said.

The switch to AWG, which was just completed in the last few weeks, entails price reductions on more than 3,000 brand name products in the store, including goods made by Kraft. When 50 percent of the inventory once supplied by Super Valu decreased in price, Wichmann said there was definitely a noticeable change in business.

“Now I’m hearing customers say, ‘You know, I used to drive to Wal-Mart once a week. Now I don’t have to.’ We’ve heard that several times,” she said.

Business has not only picked up at the checkout counter, but also at the deli, where AWG’s tenderloins, breaded catfish and Champ’s Chicken have become instant favorites among locals. The breaded and fried chicken that is served fresh daily is hands-down better in quality and in popularity than the frozen Tyson chicken the store used to carry under Super Valu, Wichmann said.

“It’s 100 times better. Customers love it,” she said.

Wichmann also thinks customers will love the expanded food selections Williamsburg Foods is able to offer through AWG, as well as the AWG brand, Best Choice, which replaces Super Valu’s Flavorite brand.

“It is just as top notch in quality as we thought the Flavorite was. Plus, they have a 100 percent money-back guarantee,” she said.

While a few brand name items left store shelves for good as Super Valu left, Wichmann noted AWG has made extra strides to acquire some just for the Williamsburg location, in order to meet customers’ needs.

“A lot of older people in town that do baking bake with Robinhood Flour, so it was important that we had that in here. (AWG) didn’t have it, but they’re getting it for us. They are doing everything they can to help make the customer happy and help give them what they want,” Wichmann said.

While Williamsburg Foods has temporarily departed from Super Valu in the past, Wichmann said she does not see this switch as something that will turn over once the economy does.

“AWG continues to grow. They’re just coming to this area from Kansas City, and they’re always looking for new stores. We look for this to be definitely a long-term (change). “It’s been the right decision. There’s no doubt,” she said.

Though there were a few bumps along the road, Wichmann attributes the smooth transition from the new store setups to the retagging of inventory to inputting hundreds of new barcodes to the patience and dedication of the employees at Williamsburg Foods.

“We have so many full-time employees who have been here 20+ years. Without their support and excitement for the change, it wouldn’t have been possible to make it work,” she said.

Wichmann and Grolmus have been in business in the Williamsburg since 1973. Their second co-owned store has operated out of Eldridge since 1979.

Williamsburg Foods is planning to launch a grand reopening Wednesday, May 5. Free grocery giveaways will be held over the weekend of Friday, May 7, and Saturday, May 8.

UPDATED April 21, 2010 11:56 AM

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