by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Southwest
Hometown Food Markets, owned by Ed and Dana Sowards, operates two Colorado stores. The towns they serve, Pagosa Springs and Antonito, are located on either side of the Continental Divide. Both are tourist towns and sit at about 8,000 feet above sea level.
“Both of them are the last stops before you go into the mountains,” Ed Sowards said.
The couple has operated the Antonito store for years. Antonito is located at the mouth of the Conejos Canyon.
The Sowardses bought the Pagosa Springs store in late 2015. Pagosa Springs is located in southwest Colorado approximately 35 miles north of the central New Mexico border.
“That was a tougher market because there’s a Walmart there and there’s a Kroger there, and it’s tough when an independent comes back into town,” Sowards said. “But we just felt like we could.”
They can and they have. They know how to serve the visitors who come for the great outdoors in the summer and winter, and the locals who come in year-round. Hometown Food Markets offer fishing and hunting licenses in the stores.
“We are that part of Colorado, so we really have to accommodate to the tourists that are there for the mountain experience,” Sowards said.
The stores offer high-level service.
“We don’t have to run anything past corporate to slot something into the stores. If a customer wants it and we can find it, we can get it,” he said. “The motto on the sacks says, ‘We are proudly serving our communities and proud of the communities we serve.’ We mean that. Then up above the door of each store we have a sign that says, ‘Customers are not an interruption to our work, they are the reason for it.’”
Their stores are right on trend with fresh and local products. Ed Sowards goes out to farms in the area and brings in as many local products as he can: peaches, chiles, cantaloupe and more.
“The produce is abundant this time of year,” he said. “We roast fresh green chiles at both stores. We buy them locally—Colorado chiles—and ship in the New Mexico ones. My warehouse, Affiliated Foods, is great to work with. Randy Arceneaux and all of his crew over there, they do just an outstanding job.”
Sowards used to be a meat cutter and both of the Hometown Food Market stores have full-service meat counters. Twice each year, the stores have Mega Meat Sales.
“I train meat cutters still myself,” he said. “To me, meat makes the meal, so we have meat cutters on hand all of the time to cut to spec. It’s another thing we do differently than anybody else. We still order it in and cut it. If somebody wants a one-inch ribeye or 10 half-inch ribeyes, we can cut it right then and there and get it ready for them.”
The stores’ offerings also include grass-fed natural beef.
There is a bakery in the Antonito location.
“People rave about their bakery,” said Mary Lou Chapman, president of the Rocky Mountain Food Industry Association.
The Antonito market is the smaller store, at about 12,000 s.f. A grocery store has been operating at that location since 1967.
“I still have a lady who works in the store that’s worked there since 1967,” Sowards said. “She’s my baker. She’s 73 years old. For her 70th birthday, she bought herself an ATV. She still comes in and works full-time and bakes for me.”
The Pagosa Springs location, which is a bit larger than its counterpart at 16,000 s.f., has a tortilleria, and it is a big draw.
“We make homemade tortillas from scratch every day,” he said. “You can watch them start all the way from a dough ball to a finished product. It is right in front of the customers. We sample the fresh tortillas. We figure if we put one in their mouth, we can definitely put it in their cart.”
It is those sensory experiences that keep customers coming back.
“What keeps us different is we want to make it an experience, not just a trip, and when they come in we want them to try fresh tortillas,” Sowards said. “We have people that come in and say ‘man, that meat tastes like it used to taste,’ because it doesn’t have all the solutions and all that stuff where it’s prepackaged.”
The Sowardses built a liquor store onto the Antonito location in 2016. Dana Sowards travels hundreds of miles to pick up craft beers to bring the unique offerings to customers at Hometown Food Markets.
“That’s an area that she really works hard in. She talks to a lot of craft brewers in the state. The craft beers here are just phenomenal,” Sowards said. “Dana and I even went to an NGA (National Grocers Association) event and took a pairing class so we would know how to help our customers pair it with our food. It was a very good class.”
In Pagosa, the Sowardses have a license to sell 3.2 beer, or lower point beer with less alcohol. New laws will take effect in January that will convert that license to allow them to sell full-strength beer
The store is part of the family
Ed and Dana Sowards have worked side by side for 18 years now. They have five children.
“We got tired of our 8-to-5 jobs and being separated,” Sowards said. “I can honestly say that we haven’t fought a day. We really enjoy working with each other and we work hard, but we really don’t fight. We decided that we wanted to raise our kids where we could teach them some work ethics.”
The children do come back and help with big sales but Sowards is not sure yet whether any of them might take over the business one day.
“We worked them so hard that none of them wanted anything to do with the grocery store,” Sowards said with a laugh. “They all still stay pretty active in it, but most of them went on and graduated college and have done something else.”
The couple was mentored for 20 years by Harold Kelloff, who owned Kelloff’s Food Markets. They bought two stores from Kelloff in 2001. (The other was sold to Walgreens in Alamosa.)
“He ran four stores and was a very good family-oriented gentleman that I worked with for 20 years. He worked with his wife also, and they raised their kids. Their kids ended up being engineers and doctors. I don’t know that mine will end up being engineers and doctors, but they are going to be close anyway,” Sowards said. “It’s hard with small stores to raise families. Sometimes people say, ‘well, you end up marrying the store,’ which you do, but it’s part of your family.”