by Terrie Ellerbee/associate editor
Hank Binkowski, CEO of Oklahoma City-based Buy for Less, has been in the food business all his life.
His parents are Polish immigrants who came through Ellis Island, and they raised him in the restaurant business. He went to work for The Kroger Co. right out of college. He worked for Scrivner Inc., which offered him his first store before Scrivner was purchased by Fleming Cos.
He moved to Oklahoma in 1986 and opened his own store, a warehouse concept, in 1988 at the corner of Penn and Hefner in Oklahoma City.
Today, the company has 14 diverse stores, with three concepts: Uptown Grocery Co., Super Mercado, and Buy for Less.
“You would be hard pressed to find that two of our stores are identical in nature,” Binkowski told The Shelby Report. “What we believe is our overall mission is to be married to each of our communities, to be relevant and give the customers a sense of community in our stores.”
With that in mind, Binkowski said the company puts a lot of thought into new locations.
“We take a long time to go through how we think that community will fit into our overall banners and if it makes sense to go in there,” he said. “There have been times that we’ve chosen to go ahead and times that we have not, for whatever reason. Maybe it didn’t really, truly fit with what we wanted to accomplish.”
He said the company has been in no rush to add locations. In the past couple of years the company has picked up a couple of sites, one a Mariachi Super Mercado near the state capitol that he said has done very well. It and four other stores cater to Hispanics more than the other nine store locations do. In some neighborhoods, particularly on the south side of Oklahoma City, the Hispanic population can be anywhere from 40 percent to as high as 99 percent of residents.
At the Super Mercado stores offerings include prickly pears, Goya coconut water and Caprice shampoo. Shoppers can get meals at the Cocina Pequena.
At the upscale Uptown Grocery Co. store in Edmond, with a design inspired by the classic New York warehouse district look, shoppers are more likely to be looking more for natural and organic items. There are small shops inside the store offering everything from cheese to flowers.
The Uptown Butcher Block offers Aspen Ridge Natural Beef, Rosie Free Range Chicken and fresh seafood. The Wedgery offers more than 300 domestic and locally produced varieties of cheese. Selections include Belletoile, Smith’s Country Gouda and Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen Blue.
The Gourmet Grille Deli & Café lets shoppers build their own salads with ingredients like fresh basil, chopped walnuts and Kalamata olives.
There are now three Gourmet Grille locations. The most recent was added to a Buy For Less store located near Oklahoma City University.
Buy for Less also has Becky Varner, a registered dietitian, who teaches shoppers how to choose more healthful foods, stock a healthier pantry and read labels.
The company relies on supervisors, category managers and store directors to know what is popular or lacking at a particular store.
Binkowski is quick to point out that Buy For Less is not a one-man show. He specifically mentioned the work of CFO Mike Beckwith and general manager Steve Lawrence (basically the COO, he said), but he includes all of the 900 or so employees as contributing to the success of the company. He also appreciates everything his wife Susan does, too.
“We’re really blessed with a staff companies five times our size would have,” he said. “We have great support from our stores. A lot of people have many years in the grocery business. The amount and depth of staff that we have is fantastic.”
Natural, organic grocers stake their claims in state
Green Acres Market, The Fresh Market, Sprouts Farmers Market and Whole Foods Market have all opened new stores in Oklahoma. For some, it is the first venture into The Sooner State.
Green Acres Market made its foray into the state in Jenks Aug. 6. It is the third store location for the Wichita, Kan.-based company, which opened its first store in Wichita in 1994 and its second in 2006 in Kansas City, Mo.
Green Acres Market offers organic and natural products that contain no hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, flavors, antibiotics or growth hormones. The majority of deli offerings, which include sandwiches and wraps, salads, crab cakes, smoothies and juice drinks, are made with organic ingredients. The store offers reasonably priced “lunch boxes” that contain sandwiches made with all-natural meats and cheeses on local artisan bread as well as the company’s signature pasta salad, fresh fruit and a brownie.
A popular item in the bakery is “beer rocks,” which are bread rolls stuffed with cabbage, meat and other ingredients. The produce department carries local and organic items, but will stock non-organic produce when prices for organic are too high. Also in stock are natural household cleaning supplies, natural pet food and a complete bulk section.
The grocer offers a free Green Acres Market Rewards program that gives customers one point for each dollar spent on qualifying purchases. At 200 points, customers get $5 off their next purchase at the checkout.
The 14,000-s.f. store employs 27 people.
The Fresh Market opened its first Oklahoma location on June 27 at 8015 S. Yale Ave. in Tulsa. The company is known for its full-service philosophy and knowledgeable store staff.
The new 24,700-s.f. Tulsa store includes a bakery that produces 30 freshly baked varieties of bread and 14 different pie varieties daily, a full service meat counter with freshly ground beef, a wide selection of ready-to-serve entrées, fresh seafood delivered to the store several times per week, and more than 200 imported and domestic cheeses, as well as a produce department with more than 400 items and a large organic selection.
The Fresh Market brought 90 new jobs to Tulsa.
On April 4, a Sunflower Farmers Market opened at 24 E. 2nd St. Sunflower opened its first Oklahoma City store in August 2011. The Edmond store is the company’s second in the state. Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmer’s Market acquired and merged with Boulder-based Sunflower Farmers Market earlier this year. Both of the Oklahoma stores have been re-branded as Sprouts Farmers Market stores.
Whole Foods Market opened a new store in Oklahoma City last October. The environmentally friendly store features high-efficiency refrigerators, glazed tile made from recycled brick and LED lighting in the food cases and coolers. It also boasts an electric vehicle charging station in the parking lot—the first such station in the state.
Reasor’s expands its presence
Reasor’s, with roots in Tahlequah, continues to expand in its home state. It is looking to build an 82,000-s.f. store in Edmond at the Bridges of Spring Creek, opened a store in Sand Springs and will soon open a Bixby location.
The Sand Springs store, in the Prattville community, is in 65,000 s.f. of what was a Walmart store at the corner of Hwy. 97 and 41st Street. It opened June 27 and among its offerings are sushi, specialty foods, a deli and an olive bar. The produce section features an expanded organic section that spotlights locally grown items. It also has a pharmacy.
The new location created 225 jobs.
The Bixby location will open this fall. Reasor’s already has held job fairs to fill positions at the new store.
In May this year, Reasor’s introduced Reasor’s Rewards, a program designed to give shoppers savings on fuel at Oklahoma QuikTrip locations.
Jeff Reasor, Reasor’s chairman and CEO, said the program is the largest the company has ever launched. The company expected customers to save $3 million on fuel in the first year alone. Five points are earned for every $50 spent in qualifying purchases, including prescriptions. Points are then redeemed at any Oklahoma QuikTrip or Lil’ Reasor’s fuel center. Reasor’s Foods in Jenks won the Excellence in Merchandising Award for having the most outstanding seafood department in 2011 from among more than 2,500 supermarkets serviced by Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG). It is presented to only one supermarket each year.
The Jenks store features 14 varieties of fish and 11 varieties of shellfish, as well as Reasor’s Signature stuffed salmon or tilapia, ready-to-grill seafood kabobs and crab cakes.
Reasor’s was founded more than 48 years ago and was family owned until 2007, when it became an employee-owned company. Today, Reasor’s has 16 locations and two convenience stores and employs nearly 3,000 people in northeastern Oklahoma.
Springdale, Ark.-based Harps Food Stores has been busy in Oklahoma, too. A Harps grocery store and gas station opened on June 20 at Harbor Pointe in Grove. The 31,500-s.f. store features an updated exterior, full deli, expanded produce and meat sections, and replaces an older location. The existing Harps store had 50 to 60 associates, and the new store employs close to 100.
Meanwhile, Edmond-based Homeland Acquisition Corp. (HAC) shuttered its Tulsa Homeland store at 3139 S. Harvard Ave. on July 8. The 40,000-s.f. supermarket is located in the Ranch Acres shopping center.
HAC is a new employee-owned company that formed early this year. The management and employees of HAC, consisting of Homeland, United of Oklahoma, Country Market stores in Oklahoma and Super Save stores in north central Texas, completed an employee buyout allowing employees to purchase the company, which at the time operated 76 retail stores, from AWG, a retailer-owned cooperative.
In September 2011, a new Sam’s Club opened in the Tulsa Hills Shopping Center in West Tulsa. It is the third Sam’s Club location in the Tulsa area. The 7757 S. Olympia Ave. W. location employs approximately 230 associates. In the same month, Walmart opened a 40,000-s.f. Neighborhood Market in Midwest City.
Oklahoma economy has been fed by energy
As far as the state’s economy is concerned, Binkowski said Oklahoma has been fortunate. Like many other so-called “flyover” states, Oklahoma didn’t experience the housing market boom, which saved it from the bust.
The oil business has been good to Oklahoma, too, and major energy companies like Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Devon Energy Corp. call Oklahoma City home. Oklahoma, like North Dakota with its oil boom, has a stronger overall economy than many states in the Mid-America region.
The state’s unemployment rate in July was 4.9 percent, but Oklahoma still hasn’t gained back all the jobs it lost to the recession.
“I expect the state to continue to add jobs in the next three to six months but at a slower pace than it experienced in the first half of 2012,” said Ernie Goss, director of Creighton’s Economic Forecasting Group. “Oklahoma’s employment level is more than 8,000, or 0.5 percent, above its pre-recession level.”
The state’s jobless rate peaked in December 2009 and January and February 2010 at 7.2 percent, and has been as low as 3.3 percent in the past.
Creighton University listed Oklahoma’s Business Conditions Index as 53.6 for August. The index is taken from a survey of businesses and derived from new orders, production or sales, employment, inventories and delivery lead time. A number greater than 50 signals expansion, while less than 50 points to economic contraction.
As is the case in much of the Southwest, the drought has taken a toll. Ninety percent of the state is in extreme or exceptional drought. Cotton, soybeans, hay and pecans are threatened. When farmers don’t hire workers, unemployment goes up and investments in equipment and services like crop dusting drop.
Still, Oklahoma is experiencing more housing starts in the western and northern areas of the state as people come looking for work in the oil fields.