by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Southwest
Firelake Discount Foods in Shawnee, Oklahoma, recently was designated the first-ever Blue Zones Project-approved grocery store in Oklahoma.
Richard Driskell, director of retail operations for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, oversees three tribal grocery stores, including the flagship in Shawnee. At 88,000-s.f., it is the largest tribally-owned grocery store in the U.S.
The tribe has three grocery store locations. In addition to Firelake Discount Foods, it also operates Firelake Express Grocery stores in McLoud and Tecumseh; they measure 25,000 s.f. and 11,000 s.f., respectively. Citizen Potawatomi Nation also own two casinos, banks, a golf course, entertainment venues and restaurants. Citizen Potawatomi Nation employs about 2,400 people across all those entities and government offices.
Driskell’s grocery career began in 1986, when he worked as a sacker for Pratt Foods in Tecumseh. Over time, he has worked in just about every department there is in a grocery store. He left the grocery business and was a financial advisor for six years but returned to the industry in 2001 to take the opportunity in Shawnee. He oversaw a remodel in 2017 that brought both cosmetic and energy-efficient upgrades to the flagship.
“We updated all of our low- and medium-temp refrigeration cases,” Driskell told The Shelby Report. “We installed energy-efficient Kysor Warren cases. We still have open cases on the fresh meat side, but in the lunchmeat cases we went with french doors instead of open-face cases, so now we save tremendously on electricity because that air is circulating inside the cases and not in the store.”
The store got a new décor package, and a few departments were moved. A major part of the remodel was the relocation of the deli. It had been in the back of the store.
“We originally had our deli back by our meat department, and we decided that we needed to expand on our fresh meat opportunities and footage,” Driskell said. “So, when we did that we also decided to move the deli, and we thought it would be better to move it to the front of the store. When you come into the store, typically you will turn left and that’s the flow. And as you turn left, you come right into our deli area, our bakery area and produce, so it really has exposed the deli more than when it was in the back.”
The deli includes set-off areas called “Firelake BBQ” and “Firelake Bakery.” Driskell said some of the prepared foods offered include ribs, brisket sandwiches and “loaded spuds.” Other offerings include Charley Biggs chicken, freshly-made sandwiches, potato salad and more, as well as all of “the different things you might need for any type of party, like deli trays,” he said.
The center store now has more products and a bargain area was added where the store team places all specials and deals. Firelake Discount Foods has a large lobby where store employees can build some “massive displays” for product promotion, Driskell said.
The team in Shawnee has had some impressive displays. In 2016, Firelake Discount Foods had the world’s largest grape display, with a total display weight of nearly 40,000 pounds.
“We’ve had at one time—I don’t know if we still hold it, but—the largest banana display, the largest potato display,” he said. “We’ve also held the world’s largest Little Debbie display and Malt-O-Meal cereal display.”
Firelake’s wholesaler, Affiliated Foods in Amarillo, Texas, is a partner in these events, cutting good deals so that the stores can offer deep discounts on, for example, the grapes on display.
Driskell values the partnership the discount grocer has with Affiliated Foods.
“Affiliated has been a very valuable partner for us to help grow our business and to continue to open stores,” he said. “We couldn’t be more excited about Affiliated and what a great partner they are.”
Driskell serves on the cooperative’s retail advisory council. It generally meets a couple of times each year and members bounce ideas off of one another.
“We discuss what is working at each of our retail locations so that we can grow business,” he said. “We talk about how we can grow business as a wholesaler as well.”
Driskell appreciates the meat-cutting program that Affiliated Foods offers. Each Firelake location employs meat cutters. They are trained internally and at Affiliated Foods.
“We have a manager at each location that oversees the cutters as well as the other meat personnel,” Driskell said. “We’re a full-fledged, full-service meat department, so we can cut to order. If someone wants to come in and they want a steak an inch and a half thick-cut or something similar, then we will do that at each store.”
A couple of years ago, Firelake rolled out a new vision: “We are passionately committed to retail excellence, one customer at a time.”
“That got all of our staff on the same page as to what we wanted to do with all of our stores,” he said. “As we grew and opened more stores, we expanded and created a vision particular to us.”
New employees learn the vision, and it is used when team members are praised or, on occasion, if they are disciplined.
“We always revert back to the vision and say, ‘were we passionately committed about this? Was this retail excellence?’” he said. “It really has caught on, and you can definitely feel a vibe with the staff about retail excellence.”
Driskell is proud of the stores’ teams and their involvement in the communities they serve.
“We have a lot of people who are involved in civic groups. We are passionate about making a difference in our community,” he said. “We serve at the Salvation Army once a month. We encourage employees to sign up each month. Our main thing is that we want to give back to the community what they give to us, and I pride myself in knowing that our staff is continually out there making a difference with the people in Pottawatomie County.”
The idea to bring the Blue Zones Project to the store originated in Shawnee via the Avedis Foundation. Certain requirements have to be met within a three-year period for the city to achieve Blue Zones certification. One of the requirements was to have a certain number of Blue Zones Project-certified grocery stores on board, as well as work sites, schools, churches and restaurants. Driskell is on the food environment committee for the project in Shawnee.
“We are more of a meat-and-potatoes kind of state and county, so it is taking time for people to learn about food and the culture of food and how it can relate to your overall feeling day to day,” he said. “Those are the things that people are trying to understand. We want to make sure they know that this is a destination where we have healthy products. If you do want to eat healthy, you can find those in any of our grocery stores.”
The store offers cooking demos and store tours with a nutritionist as well. It also offers children who come into the store free fruit—an idea first suggested by an employee.