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Roth’s Fresh Markets Co-Founder Dies At 79

Orville Roth of Roth's Fresh Markets

Mr. Orville N. Roth, co-founder of Roth’s Fresh Markets in Oregon, died Sunday afternoon after suffering a heart attack over the weekend. He was 79.

In a memo Sunday to Roth’s employees, Mr. Roth’s son Michael Roth, president of the company, and his daughter Melinda Roth said their father was “visiting his favorite childhood cousin in Hawaii when he suffered a heart attack. We were able to catch a flight to be with him. After a period of time on life support his heart finally gave out.”

“Orville was ‘larger than life’ in many ways and will be deeply missed,” the Roths said in the memo. “He was most proud of each and every one of you and the energy and devotion you give to Roth’s Fresh Markets each day. He was also diligent in planning for the future of Roth’s and ensuring the stores’ success for another 50-plus years.”

Mr. Roth, along with Herman C. Jochimsen, opened their first store in Silverton, Ore., in 1962. Mr. Roth bought out the company after Jochimsen’s death in 1973. Today, the Salem-based company operates nine supermarkets in the mid-Willamette Valley.

Funeral arrangements are being planned.

Read more about Mr. Roth’s life and company here.

In the feature photo at top: Mr. Orville N. Roth, co-founder of Roth’s Fresh Markets in Oregon, is pictured at the company’s Silverton store in 2012 discussing the company’s 50th anniversary. (Photo by Danielle Peterson/Statesman Journal)

The Shelby Report visited and interviewed Mr. Roth in Salem in 2008. Ron Johnston, president and publisher of Shelby Publishing Co., wrote a column about the experience. It originally appeared in the April 2008 edition of The Shelby Report of the West and appears below.

OK, grocery aficionados. Whose initials are O.R., wears a bow tie and pitches corn?

“Orville Redenbacher” seems the obvious answer, but not here in Oregon.

Orville Roth pitches more than corn. He promotes the whole supermarket. The founder and chairman of Roth’s Your Family Market was “going green” long before it was cool. His rosy red cheeks and patented green bow tie coupled with his equally colorful personality make Roth glow, in neon, wherever he is.

Behind that green bow tie is gray matter that will fool you, however. While he is an original whose celebrity follows him wherever he goes, Roth’s success is more than a lucky charm around his neck. His knack for engaging and motivating people, both employees and customers, translates into a grocer who turns customer service into green like the late Mr. Redenbacher popped corn.

Roth remains as excited about his business as the first day the doors swung open. And he’s as true to his trademark. By the time our interview had ended, he had literally handed me his wallet. Opening it up, there was his driver’s license: Roth’s florid face and genuine green staring right back at me…

Following are parts of our wide-ranging conversation.

I’m interviewing Orville Roth, who is the chairman of the board of Roth’s Family Market.

I’m the CCC.

CCC, which is…

Chief courtesy clerk. I gave the CEO job to my son. The CCC title is just a lot more fun.

I started off as a 16-year-old with a white shirt and a green bow tie… and that’s been a long time ago. I started out bagging groceries because I was tired of picking strawberries and green beans. In the state of Oregon, they have a lot of agriculture, and I just needed a job.

So you say you donned a white shirt and a green bow tie?

Day one. The manager said, “You got a white shirt at home?” I said, “Yes, I think so; Mom makes me go to church on Sunday and makes me wear a white shirt.” So he said, “You wear that tomorrow.” He came in and handed me a green bow tie and said, “This is the dress code. You wear that. The first one’s free and after that you pay 50 cents for them.” It’s a little higher than that now, but…

So I worked for them, went in the (military) service, and came back out and went right back into the food business. I’m not really in the food business, though; I’m in the people business. I’ve never sold furniture, I’ve never sold cars, but in our business you see the customers way more often than you do in any of those businesses.

My favorite part was when I had one store because I knew everybody. I worked half-shifts—7 in the morning until 7 at night, seven days a week—so I really got to meet my customers. Now we have 11 stores, and I still spend a lot of time out in the stores, and with my hairstyle, a lot of people know who I am. I’ve lived in Salem for 60, 65 years.

I found a niche in which we felt we could be successful against the big chain stores, customer service. Nordstrom does a good job, a lot of people do a good job, but you go into customer service with employees. … You have to have people to perform that customer service.

We still today hire 16-year-old kids and they start with us with a white shirt and green bow tie, short hair, no earrings. Our best recruiters in our business today are parents because they know we’re fair, firm and honest. We just turned 45 years as a Roth company—last September was 45 years. A lot of changes, a lot of fun, a lot of excitement. But it’s not the grocery business, it’s the people business.

…The big boys … provide service in a different way, called price. You can’t have the lowest price and the best quality and the best service. It won’t work. You have to take that lowest price up to a quality price to have all three. So you define yourself different from the majors, particularly those that are huge who buy for less than (we can). You really have to provide a service that a number of people will still support you with. The easy part of having a different price … is that as long as you convince the customer, as long as you perceive their needs, you are going to be successful. It’s all in how honest you are and how you relate to people. You have to be believable.

Let’s talk about those people a little bit. With demographics changing and the lifestyle changes—the younger couples, the single parents, etc.—how have you adapted to that or have you stayed with a core group of shoppers that have followed Roth’s all along the way?

Pretty much so, but we’ve also changed to more of the families with children. Today, those people are usually dual-income, both of them are working, so when they get off work the last thing they want to do is take a lot of time going through the checkstand. Or if they have the children they picked up from the day care, they want their groceries carried out to the car. And we physically still do that; we have people to do that. There is a cost to that, but again, if you’re going to convince the shopper that you can exceed their expectations, you have to do that.

The flip side of that is we have inflation, and the cost of gas has just exceeded $100 a barrel and budgets are tight and there is frustration about a lot of things. We sense it first. Correct that, we sense it second. I think eating out is affected first. And then secondly, it affects this business, our business.

The first 10 days of the month are what we call “heydays” because the state gets paid on the first, and the next 10 days are “play days” where we kind of have fun, and then the last 10 days are “pray days”—we pray. Our produce guys are praying that cantaloupe will sell. But we grew up doing that. …

Where (some companies) fail is they fail to look at a part of the business, and that’s the people that support that business. You can have the biggest, the fanciest, the most beautiful business, building or whatever, but if you fail to build that team… The Patriots thought they were good, but someone else had a better team. A better owner, better coach, better assistant coach, which means store manager, produce manager, meat department manager—they are all coaches. And if the store manager doesn’t realize he needs those five, six or seven guys to help his team, it’s not going to happen.

A good analogy.

Isn’t it? First of all, it has to be fun. Like I said earlier, I am not in the grocery business, I’m in the people business. If you tell me you’re unhappy, the first thing I’m going to do is just carefully listen to you and maybe give you a little smile.

If you’re really upset about something, life is like the old-fashioned alarm clocks. Remember those? … When a customer comes in and he’s unhappy about something, he’s like that alarm. If you let him relate to you what he’s not happy about, and let that totally unwind by just listening and agreeing with him, as soon as that totally unwinds then you’ll know you’ve won. If I interrupt or say, “I don’t agree with you,” he’ll give it another spin or two and go on and on. And we teach these kids (that). What’s so wonderful about these kids… is if we can retain 10 percent of the high school students that we have working for us, that means that 90 percent go on to college or go on to work somewhere else because what they’ve learned working for Roth’s are the people skills. I’ve never taught a kid to work. If a kid doesn’t know how to work, he’s not going to make it with us.

Going back to that day when you were 16, and you put on that first green bow tie, along the way which person mentored you the best?

I could tell you right off the bat. His name was Cecil Tindall. He’s gone now. I loved him because he was disciplined, and in the meantime, he taught me. He just had a way of getting more out of me than I wanted to give maybe, because I was just a kid—I just knew how to pick beans! But as he was doing that, I was around people, I loved what I was doing. That’s exciting.

When I go out to a restaurant, as I did today, everyone recognizes this haircut, (saying) “Oh, Mr. Roth, how are you? Love your store.” You can’t buy that kind of advertising. Joe Albertson used to be good at doing that. Fred Meyer used to be good, but they’re gone. What I tell the independent businessman, the most important part for you is to be out there with the customers. Don’t worry about the executive stuff; don’t worry about the technology—hire somebody else to do that.

I never had a chance to play sports… but I like the team concept. And when we have our meetings with these kids, there’s 20-30 of us sitting around with our ties. They don’t come to a meeting without that because when you wear your uniform you get paid. And when you’re in your uniform you really become part of the team.

What observations do you have about the Oregon marketplace?

The advantage (chains) have is they buy from their own wholesaler. And Walmart, they buy from themselves. WinCo now mostly is its own wholesaler, but they did buy from Supervalu. We are members of Unified Grocers. They bought out AG (Associated Grocers), which we were with in Seattle.

As an independent, the advantage is that you are able to make things happen quicker. When I change a price on an ad, like it happened here this morning, it goes into print tomorrow. The big guys have to have everything in print two weeks ahead of time. So when the market changes and you can buy blueberries in February from Chile that are top quality, I can have those in my ad next week. So it’s the ability to change and move quicker with what you’re doing. If it’s going to be sunny this weekend, we can call up and put hamburger buns on sale—they don’t sell well in the snow. You just keep ducking the bullets. Obviously, we know exactly what they’re doing. And I’m sure my ads land up on somebody’s board somewhere; they don’t leave us alone as an independent here in Oregon. But it’s the ability to make things happen and follow through is what the plan is (that sets independents apart).

Execute the plan.

…Communication is the No. 1 problem in America. With churches and schools, families and business—you know what the No. 1 solution is? Communication. Say it twice rather than not at all. You have to be fair, firm and honest in what you do and it has to be believable. I just can’t say that enough.

I teach the young kids (who come to work for us). I hold the driver’s manual in this hand and I hold the Roth’s manual in this hand. I have 123 procedures. Can you imagine that? Most of them are how do you take care of the customer? Number 81 is to pick up two pieces of paper when you go in your store. What a silly procedure; we’re in the food business! But you don’t see a lot of paper or litter along our parking lots. If you go in the restaurant and the windows are all dirty, you’re going to go in there and pick up your spoon and you are going to look at that spoon and say, “Ooh, I don’t know if I want to eat here.” When the windows are clean, you look right through them and you see the beauty on the other side.

Those are the little things the big guys don’t think of. Every morning at 7:30 we’ve got a lot of procedures. … Go out in the parking lot and sweep up so it looks beautiful and (people say), “Oh, wow, this looks clean; I want to shop in here.” They see you’ve got nice, fresh, quality stuff.

What do you see ahead? Obviously, you tapped Michael a while back to be the president and CEO. I know you don’t want to give away any secrets, but is there an expansion plan?

Yes, there is. Just like my farmer friend out here that has 800 cows. When that cow gets down to 40 percent (of her regular) pounds of milk a day, she’s still (eating) as much as the one that’s doing 80 or 100. I use that illustration because what we’re doing is making sure that all our stores are productive. Michael is spending $3.5 to $4 million remodeling a store. I used to buy two stores for that. I had a goal of 20; I made it to 15. We’ve sold some, we’ve closed some. If they’re productive, that’s what’s important.

…When I teach, I’ll put a bottle of water here, or a bottle of whiskey or a bottle of ketchup. All the bottlenecks are at the top. You are looking at the bottleneck in this company. If there is a problem, half the problem is mine. I say, “OK, son, we’ve got a problem. Let’s sit down here and think how we’re going to solve this.” If it’s technology, I just ask him to solve it. I’m the PR guy, the customer courtesy clerk.

The future of this company is to consistently stay on the same pattern that we are right now. Go to the First Citizens Bank, go to the Chamber of Commerce meeting, everywhere you go, make sure they see this white shirt and green bow tie. I’ve got 900 and some people walking around…our stores are all within 50 miles. I go to a restaurant in Portland, I don’t have any stores over there, and they look at that guy and say he needs someone to give him a new style. I don’t care.

It’s worked pretty good, though, hasn’t it?

Yes, because of that team concept. Every employee has a different name tag and a different number, but they’re all the same color. That’s what’s important.

From an industry standpoint, from what you’ve seen through your many years in the business, what concerns you most about the grocery business today whether it be on the manufacturing side or the retail side, the distribution or how they all relate now?

From the manufacturer’s side, they continue to come up with new items, but by the time it gets to the West, you’ve seen the marketing in magazines and newspapers and it isn’t even on the West Coast yet. Not that we’re last in the line, but there are so many changes, so many new items, and again, if the blip goes through the system you lose customer confidence. Again, communication. So that needs to improve.

As far as fair pricing, we’re just going to have to deal with that. Now Oregon still has COD (cash on delivery) on beer and wine, and I’m in favor of that because that’s the only level playing field that’s left. Circle K, Roth’s, Safeway, Walmart all pay the same for beer and wine, and you can’t sell below cost. But that’s why we find our niche with better quality because we are higher priced. WinCo just ran an ad in McMinnville, which is a town where we do very well, and they use that comparison. Win is pretty selective and they know what item’s on TPR. Roth’s came in second; I’m pretty proud of that.  Safeway and Albertsons and Fred Meyer are all different, and Albertsons came in last. Albertsons Northwest hasn’t done that well.

But we came in in a position that means a lot to us—and still have quality merchandise. Fortunately, they picked the items, because we don’t have the (loyalty) cards, so Safeway/Albertsons who do, when they compare that usually they take the price off the shelf, so they get tapped for that because the saving’s in the card. We started that (loyalty cards) and we did that for a while. But No. 1, it was too expensive for a small business like ours. The technology and the cost was just terrible.

Secondly, it’s none of my business if you buy Cheerios or if you buy dog food. It’s none of my business. There’s no secret to it. All they did is the savings are in the card, so they make money on the part of people who don’t have a card, where we just reflect the prices like we used to. So if they have 50-cent savings on cookies, their 50 cents is in the card, while mine’s off the shelf. Guess what? It did me a favor.

But the cards are here to stay, and it works for them.

What observations do you have about Walmart? They certainly have had more impact on our industry since they got into the business than any other.

They really came into the market at the perfect time. The last 25 years, the No. 2 problem, and this is my opinion, is consumer debt. Look at the housing market; there is no solution and that’s going to get worse. There is less and less consumer disposable income. People would love to shop at Roth’s and get their groceries carried to their car and have the kids visit with their kid in the basket and know the handles and everything are clean. They’d love to do that. But when you’re on a fixed income, your disposable income is crunched because now they’re paying $3.19 a gallon instead of $2.19, and the wages have not kept up with inflation. The government downplays inflation, but it’s huge. (Walmart’s) success is because of this lack of more disposable income.

When things are good, we do well. We do very well a couple of weeks before Christmas because people know they won’t have to stand in line in Roth’s. Now you’re in a hurry, you haven’t got time to save a buck. And you will if you go to the big stores, but you have to stand in line. What’s your time worth? You can only have customer service if you have enough employees. And the bigger the store the more time you stand around reading—you don’t get help in the store—but if you don’t have the disposable income to go shop a Macy’s or a Nordstrom or a Les Schwab Tire, which is a great tire company up here, I know I’ll pay five bucks more for a tire, but I can come back in 5,000 miles and they’ll rotate them for free. That’s service.

…Our success in the future, as long as we work hard, take care of the business, there will be room for us. Will there be as much gravy on the potatoes as there was? No. We used to have 5, 6 percent net on the shelf and I built a store every other year. Not going to happen because the big guys are No. 1 today. If you own five acres of property, you are not going to come to Roth’s and say we would like to have you on our property because we want Safeway’s lease where you can take that lease and go to the bank and borrow $5 million. So the independent has a real struggle with that.

Now the Haggens, who are up in Seattle, they’re an independent company, a great company—they’re still successful because they’re big enough to where they can do that. I tell my son, as long as you’re having fun, as long as you’re hitting .290—if you know baseball, at .290 you still get the big numbers—as long as you’re making money, go for it. But if it isn’t working for you, go to a market where you’re hitting .290. The guy that just signed with the Mets, the big money, all he does is throw baseballs, but they’re the right numbers.

I am going to be honest with you, if it wasn’t for Michael, I don’t think you and I would have the opportunity to meet as we do today. I love the industry, but I’m 73 years old. It’s different, but it’s still the basics. Take care of customers through great employees, quality service.

It’s not rocket science, is it? But a lot of companies, as you said, get so big they don’t have time to deal with it or they don’t see it as an important thing. It’s all about crunching the numbers and driving the price down, but you certainly have been very successful in the niche that you’ve carved.

When I started the business I said, what can I come up with that will work? So I looked at this chair here and it’s got four legs—this leg here is take care of the customer; this leg here is take care of the employee; this leg here is pay the vendor on time; and this leg is get involved in the community. We don’t have to send money to Oakland or Idaho or Cincinnati. We don’t blow our horn enough for what we do and give back to the community. We don’t have to because our people do it for us. We sit here on Wednesday at 10:30 (and) to go through a list of donation requests. Can we do them all? No. But if the kid’s less than the eighth grade, then I’m very interested because kids have parents and kids will be parents. If you’re long-range, that’s important. And pay your bills on time. I say to my son time and again, do not overcommit this company. I don’t want front-page publicity Chapter 11 or Chapter 13.

Three things I’m uncomfortable about. One is I hate to be late; you were right on time. Two is I don’t like to wait. Third, I hate to lose. Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser. So I tell these young men as long as it’s fun, as long as you’re making money and as long as you’re hitting .290, stay with it.

I started out in an IGA store. It was Peterson’s IGA store. I had $500 bucks and a ’56 Chevy.

What town?

Silverton, Oregon, 12 miles from here.

I didn’t have a lot of money. I was a married man with two children. I had a capital partner that believed in me. It was Peterson’s IGA, so I looked at that and I said all I have to do is buy an “h” and we can make that Roth’s IGA. IGA was huge back in the Midwest, back in that era. It’s no longer as strong on the West Coast. But being part of IGA was great because I was a 1991 International IGA Retailer of the Year. I traveled … and I got to know all these IGA people. Tom Haggai is one of the finest people I ever met. You talk about a believer in what he’s doing. But today all the gentlemen that were Retailers of the Year, who had nice stores, one store, five stores, seven stores, most of them are gone because the kids didn’t want to work the seven days a week. Or because the parents wouldn’t turn it over. In my heart, I’ve turned it over. Michael may disagree with that…

But here we are for 45 years; I just hope (Michael) takes us another 10 or 15 years because it keeps me active. It keeps me involved. And I know the rules because I got them right here in my pocket—all 123 of them.

All 123 rules are right there in your pocket?

There are really 124.

What’s that?

I’ll guarantee I’ll pay my bills on time and your paycheck is part of that. I’ll take care of that.



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