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Independent Spotlight: Foods Etc IGA, Susanville Supermarket IGA More Than Grocery Stores

Foods Etc IGA in Clearlake and Susanville Supermarket IGA in Susanville both host numerous fundraisers and events each year.
Foods Etc IGA in Clearlake and Susanville Supermarket IGA in Susanville both host numerous fundraisers and events each year.

Dennis Darling started bagging groceries at his local independent grocery store while still in high school. It’s where he says he not only discovered a career but met his wife of 41 years, Ruth. At the store, he was promoted quickly up the ladder and started managing for that same company at age 23.

Eventually, the Darlings purchased their first store in 1983 in Lakeport; they worked hard to make their store what they call “the community center.” In 1993, they partnered with Rick and Anna Stewart to open a second store in Susanville, east of Redding and northeast of Reno, Nevada. In 1998, they purchased Foods Etc in Clearlake, just northwest of Sacramento, and sold the store in Lakeport.

“We have always been known as the community store,” says Dennis Darling, president. “We became an IGA retailer in 1998 and today operate two IGA stores with over 55,000 s.f. We felt that IGA and their Hometown Proud image were exactly where we wanted to be.”

Dennis Darling
Dennis Darling

Both Foods Etc and Susanville Supermarket were remodeled in 2010 with expanded bakeries, delis and produce departments. More than 1,000 new items were added in grocery with expansion of the natural and organic departments. Last year, the Darlings saw sales growth in excess of 5 percent companywide.

Both stores also are considered the best of the best among IGA operators.

Foods Etc and Susanville Supermarkets have received Five Star IGA status for 15 years in a row. In addition, in 2002, the Darlings were selected from 4,000 stores as IGA USA International Retailers of the Year. In 2008, the Stewarts were selected for the honor and, in 2011, the Darlings became the first to be selected IGA International Retailers of the Year for a second time.

Darling served on IGA’s national board for three years and currently serves as chair of the California Grocers Association’s (CGA) independent operators committee; he also is on the CGA board. In 2011, Darling was elected to serve on the FMI board of directors.

The Darlings are involved in their local community as well, volunteering and serving on numerous boards. They have been honored with awards and recognitions for their service to the community.

Darling recently discussed business with The Shelby Report and shared his thoughts about the Northern California marketplace.

Q: You remodeled both of your stores a few years ago. Do you have any future renovation and/or store growth plans?

We are currently remodeling the Clearlake store with a new POS system, compressor rack, produce and deli refresh, new floors, and we have replaced our surveillance cameras and installed software to make sure we are PCI compliant. Next year, Susanville is slated for a similar remodel.

Q: What services are you focusing on in your remodels?

Bakery/deli sales are growing double digits, and we are focusing on new display methods and fixtures. Produce continues to grow, and we are planning a complete department refresh with new AirFlo fixtures in the wet rack and upgraded dry fixtures.

Q: What accomplishment by your company over the past year are you most proud of?

Providing good jobs for our associates and a great place to shop for our customers. This is what has provided the greatest satisfaction for our family—the 34 years we have been in business. We are truly Hometown Proud.

Q: What is the economic outlook for the Northern California market and the state as a whole?

The Northern California economy is booming, but it remains to be seen how severe the effects of the current drought will be. The two towns we are in were heavily impacted by the Great Recession and are just now starting to return to normal.

Q: How would you describe the competitive landscape?

We currently compete against Safeway and Walmart conventional stores, and there is a Rays (Food Place) supermarket in Clearlake. Walmart and Safeway are the two top supermarket companies in the country and are very competitive. IGA and the wholesale buying power of our supplier, C&S Wholesale Grocers, help keep us price competitive, and we win with great perishable departments and customer service.

Q: How would you characterize the mindset of the company in terms of anticipated growth and marketing? Aggressive, steady? Optimistic or cautious?

We are aggressive merchants and continue to grow market share in our towns. We are interested, but not pursuing growth outside our area.

Q: What is at the top of your “to do” list these days?

As a small company, we struggle to keep up with ever-growing government intrusion into our business. We have learned to rely on our trade associations, the California Grocers Association and Food Marketing Institute. Without the support of these two excellent organizations, we just would not be able to keep on top of the constant changes.

Q: What would you pinpoint as the biggest (a) challenge and (b) opportunity for your company in the markets you serve?

Our biggest challenge is maintaining price parity with the vertically integrated chains; it is difficult as a small operator to get the attention of the big CPG companies. Our biggest opportunity is to continue to be community minded and provide outstanding service and perishables. The chains just can’t react to the needs of our communities like we can.

Q: What issues or trends in this market—from legislative moves to consumer spending habits—grab your attention?

I am concerned about the never-ending government regulation. We need and welcome well-thought-out bills that improve society, but more and more we are seeing legislation proposed to satisfy special interest groups or legislation that is not vetted and has too many unintended consequences. It seems likely that more and more products will be bought online, and we are currently exploring a “click-and-pick” system. But I believe that a well-positioned brick-and-mortar store that provides what its customers want will always be needed.

Q: From an industry perspective, where have retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers collaborated best for mutual benefits?

I believe that the entire industry has worked very well to establish a functional recall system. This is an issue that was never mentioned 10 years ago and now virtually every retail outlet has a recall protocol in place.

A second success story is front-of-label nutritional labeling. Again, this is a total industry issue that is making a difference in the consumer’s health. FMI, NGA and GMA now work very closely on a broad range of issues affecting the industry.

*Editor’s notes:

In 2012, Darling changed his company’s corporate structure to better comply with Obamacare, and the two stores now have separate corporate ownership.

This story is part of the 2015 Northern California Market Profile, which appears in the August print edition of The Shelby Report of the West. You also can find more photos of Foods Etc IGA and Susanville Supermarket IGA in that edition.

About the author

Kristen Cloud

Kristen was Editor at The Shelby Report.

1 Comment

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  • It wasn’t called Obamacare, it was called the Affordable Health Care Act. Subjectivity can ruin a good article.

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