For the seventh time in the last 20 years, a new vendor will run Barron’s downtown food store.
But the chief executive officer of the newest owner, KJ’s Fresh Markets, believes his company can succeed in Barron and two other area communities, including Cornell and Chetek, even though its former owner failed.
Native North Dakotan Keith Johanneson owns and operates Johanneson’s Inc., of Bemidji, Minn.
His company includes stores in several Upper Midwestern states, and has some 1,600 full- and part-time employees.
“We have been in business 78 years,” Johanneson said shortly after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Barron store on Wednesday morning, Aug. 14, 2019.
“Our suppliers (Twin Cities-Based grocery wholesaler SpartanNash) took over these (Wisconsin) stores and they approached us to take them on.”
Johanneson said he was aware of the financial issues faced by former owner Gordy’s Market, Inc., and how the Chippewa Falls-based supermarket chain was forced into receivership by SpartanNash and other creditors.
That process led to the court-ordered breakup of the family-owned Gordy’s supermarket chain, left many creditors with unpaid or partially paid bills, and caused uncertainty among thousands of Barron area customers.
But – aside from knowing what happened – the new store owner said he didn’t want to comment further about what happened in the past.
There were opportunities and challenges faced by KJ’s Fresh Markets when the company agreed to purchase the three Wisconsin locations, Johanneson added.
The good news: “Of the three former Gordy’s stores we agreed to take on, Barron was the largest operation and was in the biggest market,” he said.
The bad news: “The physical plant here was a disaster,” Johanneson said. “We have spent a lot of money improving the heating, ventilation, air conditioning, computer operations and other fixtures.”
For passersby, there were visible signs of the financial commitment. Shortly before it reopened, KJ’s Fresh Market had its downtown Barron parking lot re-sealed and re-striped. Two weeks ago, a crane placed a large piece of equipment on the roof of the building.
“That was a condenser we had installed to run our air conditioning and refrigeration units in the store,” Johanneson said. “The old equipment was really shot.”
During a short tour of the building, the CEO pointed out new LED lighting in the store’s freezer cabinets, saying it was an energy- and money-saving effort.
“You put a light bulb in a freezer, and you wonder why it costs so much to run,” Johanneson said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that.”
Customers are already seeing some changes inside the store, too, he added.
“Our size, as a company, should help,” Johanneson said. “We have already dropped more than 2,400 prices in this store. I believe our produce department has improved, too.
“We’re going to be adding a pet store here,” he added. “It will be … the same kinds of products that larger pet stores sell. That should be happening in mid-September. We also plan to add a line of dollar merchandise, to offer more value to our customers.”
The new owners will continue to buy from local suppliers, Johanneson said.
“Our corn is grown locally, and we’ll continue to deal with (Turtle Lake-based) North Country Cheese,” he said.
After the company made physical improvements, its next challenge was reassuring the former Gordy’s employees about their future.
“Our first week we were here, we had a quiet introduction,” Johanneson said. “We talked about the values we have as a company, that we’re family-oriented,” he added. “It really helped to settle the employees down. They were scared.”
Later, the Barron store workers attended a presentation by the company’s human relations department.
“(We) talked about our benefit package, the medical insurance and 401(k) plan,” he said. “It really lit a fire under the employees.”
The new owners pride themselves on community involvement, according to Johanneson.
He said Thomas K. Zaucha, a longtime director of the National Grocers Association, retired seven years ago. In his honor, the Thomas Zaucha Award was created to recognize (the grocery executive who best exemplifies) marketing and community involvement.
KJ’s Fresh Market has earned that award in 2011 and again in 2017, thanks, in part, to its community-based efforts, according to Johanneson.
“We created the ‘Stuff a Truck’ campaign,” he said. “We place tote boxes at local elementary schools. The little kids receive letters that they take home to their parents (asking for donated food items). Then, just before Thanksgiving, we park a truck in our store parking lot. The donated food is packed into it. Our staff members also help out. Then, we donate it all to the local food pantry.”
There will be a Stuff A Truck campaign at the KJ’s Barron this Thanksgiving, Johanneson said.
“We also organize a motorcycle Ride for Troops as a fundraiser for the military,” he added. “The Boy Scouts are asked to help out. Over the years, we have raised $500,000, (which was) donated to veterans’ groups to spend as they see fit.”
The business also sent out $30,000 in phone cards to the National Guard, so that deployed military personnel could call home, Johanneson said.
“Our most recent ride included 500 bikes in our (Bemidji, Minn.) parking lot,” he said. “When they started, it sounded like thunder. It brings tears to your eyes to see seven miles of (motorcycles) stretched out on the road.”
KJ’s also donates Mexican food to area hospitals so they can have taco dinners as fundraisers, Johanneson added.