by Lorrie Griffith/editor–West
The Montana grocery landscape features a mix of chains like Walmart, Costco, Smith’s, Albertsons, Safeway and Lucky Markets as well as some strong local independents.
Shoppers in the Billings area may get a new grocery option, as it was reported in February that WinCo Foods is planning to build a new grocery store on a lot where Kmart formerly operated a store.
According to KULR-8 News in Billings, WinCo, which is based in Boise, Idaho, is proposing to build a store that is more than 80,000 s.f. on the former Kmart property, which is on the corner of 24th Street West and Central Avenue and has been vacant since the discounter closed the store in 2016.
The Billings Gazette reported in a Feb. 26 article that the store would be about 88,000 s.f. and cost an estimated $6.8 million.
The paper said WinCo would demolish the existing Kmart structure and build a new store from the ground up, adding that once the city of Billings approves the project and permits are issued, WinCo would then have a six-month window to begin work, meaning construction would likely begin in late spring or early summer. A search of the WinCo website did not turn up any information about the Montana store.
If the Billings WinCo comes to fruition, the store would be its first in Montana, although the employee-owned grocer has been trying to build stores for a few years.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, in April 2016 WinCo announced it was going to build in Bozeman but pulled out of the plan by November of that year because of the city’s design requirements. WinCo also announced plans to build in Helena but put those plans on hold in March 2017, the Independent Record reported.
KULR noted that if the Billings location opens, it will have two immediate competitors: Natural Grocers, which operates next door, and Albertsons, across the street.
An employee-owned company, WinCo is known for its warehouse-type stores that feature bulk foods sections in addition to all the traditional grocery departments. Its stores are no-frills, with customers bagging their own groceries, to keep prices low. The “Wall of Values” at the front of the store showcases some of the best deals in the store.
Bozeman independent building new, larger store
Heeb’s East Main Grocery, originally founded by Ernie and Edith Heeb, has been a part of downtown Bozeman since 1947. Today, it is run by Bozeman natives Mitch and Sherri Bradley, the fourth owners of the store, which has used the slogan, “Best Little Big Store In Town!”
That may have to be slightly tweaked; the Bradleys are in the midst of a store construction project that will relocate the store later this year to a space that is more than double the size of its existing 10,000-s.f. store.
Mitch Bradley told The Shelby Report that the new store, which is about a half-mile farther east than the existing store, will be 26,500 s.f.
That’s a big jump—and a big commitment—but Bradley explained the rationale he and Sherri used to make the decision.
“There are probably three different factors that have motivated us,” he said. “One, it was an opportunity that I never thought I would be given; I’d always worked for chain stores before we owned Heeb’s for the last 10 years.”
The developer of the new center wanted to keep a locally owned grocer as a tenant, so they approached Bradley to see if he was interested.
That’s where the second factor came into play.
“We have really outgrown our facility,” Bradley said. “Our parking lot is far too inadequate for what we do business-wise, and also the access in and out of our parking lot onto the main street and onto a side street is really hard. We have always used the analogy ‘hitting the ceiling’ with our existing facility. So that was another reason—we will be able to grow our business so much more.”
But thirdly, he is honest to say, it was a “defensive move because I knew the developers very much wanted to get a grocery store into this development that they’re doing, and they gave me the first opportunity to do that. My concern was if I didn’t do it, what would happen to our business if we wanted to sell it in a few years? I figured it would be something that wouldn’t be good.”
After evaluating, studying, thinking and talking to a lot of different people, the Bradleys “came to the decision that this is a great opportunity; let’s go for it,” he said.
The new store will carry an updated name—Heeb’s Fresh Market—which will reflect the emphasis of the new store.
“A majority of our thought process (in the new store) is about going after the fresh end of it—expanding our produce, deli, bakery, meat significantly from where we’re at. Over half of the store is committed to that,” Bradley said.
Heeb’s deli in its existing store is tiny yet turns out ready-to-eat meal deals every day (Bradley credits his deli associates for what they’ve been able to accomplish; they “work very hard and do a great job”). Those meals will continue to be offered, but much more will be added.
“We’re going to put in a salad bar, fresh-made pizzas, a lot more grab-and-go foods, because from what I’ve seen and learned it’s so much that’s the direction the grocery industry is going to. We’re going to do fresh-cut fruit, cut vegetables, make our own dips. We don’t do doughnuts here (at our existing store), but we will be making fresh fried doughnuts up there,” Bradley said.
For those who want to enjoy food while in the store, the new store will have about 1,500 s.f. of mezzanine seating above the deli and on the main floor by the deli.
The existing store has a full-service meat case, but it will be expanded with “a much nicer cutting area for my meat department people,” Bradley said. “Produce will be significantly bigger from what we have, with more refrigerated tables out to offer fresh product, and our wet rack will be bigger.”
Something that also will be bigger is Heeb’s employee count. There currently are 26 employees, and Bradley estimates that will rise to between 40 and 50.
The store, depending on the weather this summer, could open by November, but it could be December, he said. Bradley was pleasantly surprised that despite the record snowfall many parts of Montana experienced this past winter, the construction crew was able to make a lot of progress on the store’s foundation.
“They’re a great group of people that are working on it,” he said. “Now the steel is up and they’re working on the underground utilities.”
Building the new store fairly close to the existing store preserves another of the advantages Heeb’s enjoys.
“The fortunate thing for us is we’re on the east side of town, so we’re one of the first stores people come across” when they arrive from that direction, Bradley said.
He said they have done surveys and found that Heeb’s is more of a neighborhood market, drawing mostly from the local population, supplemented in the summers by tourists.
“A lot of our shoppers come here multiple times a week,” he said. “They want to be in a store where they feel comfortable. They know our cashiers and meat cutters, and then they see each other, too. It can be a real social event.”
Working as the owner—he oversees overall operations while Sherri is the bookkeeper—Bradley likes the fact that he can interact with customers as much as he wants.
“I feel like life is all about relationships, and I am very grateful that I have been given this opportunity to be here to run this store,” he said. “I feel like that’s probably more of my calling than working for a major corporation. And I can have those relationships with our customers and my employees as well. I know them a lot better, just because of our size and I really enjoy that. It’s wonderful to be able to do that.”
But Bradley doesn’t dismiss the valuable things he learned working for supermarket chains earlier in his 40-year career.
He started as a bag boy for Buttrey’s in Bozeman. He didn’t go to college, instead continuing to work in different store departments. He eventually became manager of a Buttrey’s store in Helena. In 1998, when he had worked for the company about 20 years, Buttrey’s was bought by Albertsons and his store became a Smith’s. He worked for Smith’s for 10 years.
“I really got a great education; I would never be able to do what I am doing now, I feel like. Smith’s runs a very good store, their expectations are very high. It’s challenging. Had I not worked for them, I don’t believe I would be successful with what I’m doing now,” he said.
He also doesn’t believe he would be successful without Sherri. While he handles the day-to-day operations—“the running of the store, the merchandising and the ads, the human resources”—she does all the bill-paying and bookkeeping.
“We’re truly a mom-and-pop store,” he said. “She does a marvelous job. She’s very meticulous. I never have anyone call me and say you owe me money; she’s always on it. We each bring our attributes to the table, and it really has been a great team effort.”
Sherri also has spearheaded the store’s move into online shopping. The conviction that Heeb’s needed to offer that service came to Mitch through his service on the Retail Council of Associated Food Stores, Heeb’s wholesaler that’s based in Salt Lake City.
“I saw a lot of different presentations talking about the online shopping and I just felt like we really needed to move in that direction. You see it more and more happening,” Bradley said, adding that “we are one of the few stores in Montana that have taken that on.”
He said more customers take advantage of only grocery ordering and delivery than ordering online and then picking up their order at the store.
“We do a lot of deliveries, but I’d like to see more per day and then also get more pickups,” he said. “I believe when we go to our new store that we’ll be able to really expand on that considerably.”
Bradley said that he and his fellow Bozeman independent Town & Country, which also is supplied by Associated Food Stores, have a good relationship: “We’re both big fans of being independents that are fighting against the giants.”