by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Midwest
Hornbacher’s soon will open its ninth store. It will be the chain’s eighth Fargo/Moorhead market location and the first in West Fargo, North Dakota.
Three-quarters of the walls were up the last time Hornbacher’s President Matthew F. “Matt” Leiseth visited the site. The 65,000-s.f. store should open in the spring.
“We are adding all the bells and whistles we can to the store,” he told The Shelby Report’s Geoff Welch. “As we’ve grown in our six-plus decades, we always find something that we could do better. We find a way to rearrange the store, find places that customers can sit and enjoy a cup of coffee and maybe enjoy a meal inside the store.”
The refinement is continuous to keep Hornbacher’s on the cutting edge, he said. The chain strives to stay ahead of what tomorrow’s customers will want.
Hornbacher’s has been in business since 1951, when founder Ted Hornbacher opened a grocery store. Over the decades, the chain’s market share has reigned supreme.
“We sit at around a 30 percent market share, and that’s with Walmart Supercenters, Costco, Sam’s Clubs, all the rest in the market,” Leiseth said. “It’s not that we’re in the middle of North Dakota and there’s no competition. We’re fighting for our right to be here in this market. And we’ve been doing, I think, a great job.”
North Dakota Grocers Association President John “Jiggs” Dyste agrees.
“They are a high-end retailer. Beautiful produce, beautiful meat and deli sections. They are well-positioned in the market and up against stiff competition,” Dyste said. “We’ve got some other large retailers in the area and it’s a very competitive market. They do an excellent job.”
Dyste added that the new West Fargo store will be in an area that is underserved, and he believes the grocer will do well there.
Community connections set Hornbacher’s apart from the competition, Leiseth said. It supports the United Way, the American Cancer Society, rape and abuse crisis centers and more, including giving away hams at Christmastime to the Salvation Army.
“Nobody else that I know of can own that the way we do. We are connected with the nonprofits and all of the things that are good that are going on in the marketplace,” Leiseth said. “We happen to be the No. 1 contributor to the Great Plains Food Bank, which is the food bank of the state of North Dakota and eastern Minnesota.”
The chain is the top donor both in dollars and pounds of food. Leiseth said that last year, Hornbacher’s donated more than one million pounds of food.
“We can feed almost the entire state of North Dakota breakfast and dinner,” he said. “And that’s out of eight stores. When you think about it, there’s a ‘big gorilla’ that has stores across the state of North Dakota that doesn’t do that.”
That is just part of what builds those deep ties to the communities Hornbacher’s serves. Leiseth said there are some often overlooked areas that the chain steps up to support, like the arts.
“These are the things that round out a community and make it a livable place. We find that it is very important to connect into those types of activities within the school districts,” he said. “It’s a very reciprocal relationship that we have. You want to support the things that matter and it’s great to have customers that support you because they believe what you stand for matters.
“Hockey’s a big deal up here in northwestern Minnesota and North Dakota, but hockey will always take take care of itself,” he added.
Hornbacher’s also offers the highest quality produce and meat to be found in the market, including its private-label Certified Angus Beef, Leiseth said. The stores have scratch bakeries as well. Employees prepare products like fresh bread, cookies and cakes that are not made at home as much as they used to be.
“It is a lost art but we think it matters to a lot of customers still,” Leiseth said.
The stores also offer Quick & Easy products for those who are strapped for time. Some are ready to heat and eat, others are meal kits for preparation at home or shoppers can choose meat and seafood that has been pre-seasoned or pre-marinated.
“We find that’s a great mix. Whether you want it hot in the deli, whether you want it ready to bake in a tin pan in your oven, or we also have microwave bags for fish and chicken—everything under the sun,” Leiseth said.
The emphasis in the stores is first and foremost on customer service. He said dedicated employees build one-on-one relationships with customers.
Leiseth started his own grocery career as a bagger for Hornbacher’s 27 years ago while in college. He has had just about every job there is in a store.
“That really helps my perspective on running a store. I know what it’s like to be a bagger standing outside loading groceries when it’s 22 below and freezing your butt off,” Leiseth said. “I know what it’s like to have to mop up after somebody and I know what it’s like to have done the worst jobs.”
He said the people who do those jobs are the most valuable employees in the company. He relies on them. Baggers and cashiers meet 100 times more people than he does when he spends a day out in the community. They are the ones who can impress customers and make them want to come back to the stores.
“These are 16-, 17-, 20-year-old kids that are authentic and they know how to treat people right,” Leiseth said. “That’s the exciting part about this business.”