A lot has changed in the food business since members of the Balistreri family opened a fruit and vegetable stand 95 years ago at Oakland Avenue and Capitol Drive in Milwaukee.
Three generations later, the family is still in the food business, operating the Sendik’s Food Market chain of grocery stores throughout the Milwaukee metro.
The company operates 13 standard grocery stores and four smaller floorplan grocery/convenience stores in Milwaukee, Brookfield, Hartland, Greendale, Hales Corners, Greenfield, Mequon, Germantown, Bayside, West Bend, Elm Grove, Waukesha, New Berlin, Wauwatosa, Franklin, Grafton and Whitefish Bay.
“My grandfather and his brothers started the company in 1926,” said Ted Balistreri, one of the family co-owners of Sendik’s. “The first store was at Oakland and Capitol. It was only a fruit stand. It sold fruits and vegetables.”
These days, Sendik’s is an independent retailer competing against some of the biggest — and best-run — retailers in the world, including Walmart, Kroger and Costco.
“95 years ago there were not nationally-branded retailers like you have now,” Balistreri said. “There weren’t really any regional players, either.
“That consolidation has been, to a certain extent, at the expense of independent, privately held grocers like us,” Balistreri said.
That doesn’t mean the Sendik’s stores and its team has withered as the competition has intensified.
If anything, it’s made the company stronger, Balistreri said.
“We are intensely competitive as a business,” he said. “We enjoy the competition. We enjoy getting our hands dirty and getting down there in the trenches and really fighting for our team members and our customers.”
Independent grocers located throughout Wisconsin
Independents, including such grocers as Sendik’s, Woodman’s, Festival and the Fox Bros. Piggly Wiggly stores, all are managing to compete in a market that is saturated with stores.
There are 454 independent grocery stores in the state that employ 31,749 people, according to the National Grocers Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents independent grocers.
Across the U.S., independent grocery stores account for 33% of total grocery sales.
In terms of the number of stores operated by independent grocers, Wisconsin is on par with neighboring states — Wisconsin has 454 while Minnesota has 460, for example. Nationwide, Wisconsin has fewer independently-operated stores than geographically larger and/or more densely populated states such as California, Texas and New York.
“The supermarket industry is a fiercely competitive marketplace, which has presented more challenges for independents in the last few decades…” said Jim Dudlicek
director of communications for the National Grocers Association, via email.
Having a plan and sticking with it
Longevity in business means staying true to the values and mission you’ve established as an organization, Balistreri said.
“For us, it’s about being true to our mission and our core values,” Balistreri said. “Our mission is to provide the best grocery shopping experience, period.”
That means that even on the worst days, you never stray from what guides you.
“I think staying true to your values is so important,” Balistreri said. “There are so many things coming at you day in and day out. Making sure that when you are making decisions, you are always bouncing that off against your core values and making sure you are staying consistent.
“As we are making decisions, we are always thinking about those values and how our actions reflect those values,” he added.
Of course it helps when family begins pounding core values into your head during childhood.
“One of our core values is quality. That was drilled into me at a young age by my grandfather,” Balistreri said. “That’s something that we try to stay true to this day.”
You have to like what you do, too.
“My dad always used to say that,” Balistreri said. He said, ‘you’ve got to be enthusiastic.’ If you are enthusiastic about what you are doing every day you won’t be overwhelmed by all the external forces…” that business owners face each day.
That enthusiasm centers on food.
“Being able to say (to a customer), ‘hey, check this out over here. This just came in. This is awesome. You should try it,’ that’s fun,” Balistreri said. “That personal interaction is what it’s all about.
“Being there for all the events in people’s lives whether it is a family meal or a first communion… We can be a comforting part of people’s lives,” he added. “Food and family and fun are so connected.”
Relationships a big part of business
Balistreri said the relationships the chain has made over the years have been crucial to its success.
“We’re so proud of the local connections we have with Wisconsin companies from throughout the state that supply us with products,” Balistreri said. “Hundreds of local companies work with us.”
The business remains rooted in the community.
“This is a family business. We love the Milwaukee area and the state of Wisconsin,” Balistreri said. “We’re still having fun. We’re hoping that we can continue to grow the business and serve the community.”
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