Admire humble approach, persistence and emphasis on teamwork throughout business
Mimi Song, a Korean immigrant, founded Hispanic specialty grocery store Superior Grocers with her sister, Marie, in the early 1980s. Strong-willed and determined to achieve the American Dream, Song found great success. This year, the company is celebrating 40 years in the business – with no plans to slow down. Members of Superior’s leadership team recently visited with Shelby Publishing EVP Bob Reeves, sharing their insight into what has made Song so successful. Interviews were compiled by Shelby’s Mary Margaret Stewart.
Rich Wardwell, president
Wardwell’s career in the grocery industry began in 1982 as a courtesy clerk bagger at Raley’s Supermarket in Reno, Nevada. Some 30-plus years later, after a 25-year stint with Raley’s and a few other chains – Albertsons, Save Mart and Walmart – along the way, he got called on by Superior Grocers.
“I got a call from Mimi. And I was sitting there in the car. I was going to talk to her for like 15 minutes to half an hour, and I pulled over on the side of the road, coming back from Pittsburg, California, and ended up talking for an hour…the highway patrol came up and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Get moving,’” he recalled.
“It’s interesting how you click with somebody, how you’re having conversation, and one conversation leads to another conversation. The next thing I know, I’m down here, walking stores, looking at things, talking to her, discussing the future, hoping that she could see us working together.
“She has a work attitude that is contagious…and she has an energy level that’s pretty much unmatched.”
Wardwell came aboard as vice president of operations in 2015. And he remembers how curious he was to hear the story of how Superior Grocers had grown into what he witnessed upon arrival.
“It’s dynamic and amazing to talk to her and see how it came about and why she did what she did. She knew nothing of the grocery industry,” he said. “She would pull out the ads, and she would look at it, and she would understand it.
“She says, ‘When I used to come in, the vendors would sit across from me and I’d say, ‘I’m going to buy the whole thing.’ And they’re like, ‘You can’t buy the whole thing.’ And I go, ‘I want the whole truck.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, heck no.’ But then they sell it to me. And it’s gone. And I need another truck. They’re like, ‘What are you doing over there?’
“She had no barriers. She didn’t know what could go wrong. She just was trying anything she could to be successful.
“Through sheer determination, and smart as a whip – scary smart is what I heard – she built that with her sister. She built this business.”
But through all of her success, Wardwell said Song has stayed grounded, a trait that has helped shape the legacy of Superior.
“She’s been humble enough to teach me,” Wardwell said. “She’s been kind enough to let me make mistakes. And she’s been pointed enough to make sure she steered me in the right direction.”
Joe Cooney, retired CFO
Cooney started as the controller with Superior in 2006. When he left in 2018, he was the CFO. But his work with the Songs isn’t finished.
“Well, I’m actually working with Mimi and Marie Song. I deal with their real estate entities, but I work part time, so I guess semi-retired,” he said.
When Cooney joined the company, Superior Grocers operated 24 locations. Today, there are nearly 50 stores.
“Mimi’s always been very set on growth. One difference that I would say that Mimi has, especially like a public company, is she’s very reluctant to close a store. She’s very determined to get them to profitability, and she’ll work at it,” Cooney said.
“If you’re a competitor, and you want to open up next door or across the street, you’re in for a tough fight because she just does not give up. And as a finance person, I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve said, ‘I don’t know, Mimi. This store, I think we should get out of it.’ And then give it a few more years, and sooner or later, it just turns a corner and becomes a part of the community.
“They’ve got stories after stories of stores, where it’s like, ‘Oh, man, that store was terrible when it opened.’ And now…they do great business.
“I think in all her history – at least since I’ve been with her – they’ve only closed one store, and that’s because the lease ran out and didn’t get renewed…she’s tenacious, and she’s a competitor.”
Another aspect that Cooney emphasized about the success of Superior is how much Song and her sister, Marie, have earned it.
“They work very hard. And there’s lots of stories about working till 11 p.m., getting up at 5 a.m. and sleeping in the store…they went through a lot of hard times, and it’s a great immigrant story,” he said.
“They came with basically nothing. They weren’t sophisticated retailers coming to America to ply their trade. They knew nothing about it. They learned it through hard work. It’s very impressive.”
Blake Larson, CFO
Larson first learned about Superior Grocers in 1996, when it was “just getting going,” he said. At the time, he was working for Superior’s wholesaler, Unified Grocers.
“For that 20-plus years of experience with Unified Grocers, I had an opportunity to see the growth and hear Mimi’s story,” he said.
“I thought it was such a great story for her to come in here and do what she has done and to support the communities that she supports.”
Fast-forward to 2018, and Larson heard of an opportunity to come to Superior Grocers to follow Joe Cooney.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to be part of an organization that I have heard so much about and seen that growth and development…I was blessed with the opportunity to come here and work with Rich and Mimi,” Larson said.
“Mimi is a great lady. She has a great heart…she demands excellence, but she’s fair. She is committed in such a way because she is by choice.
“When I look at the company now that I’m here for a couple of years, and I look at her passion…she dedicates everything to the company – from her time to financial resources – and she doesn’t hold back.
“It’s an impressive thing to be able to see that and witness it from the inside after having observed it from the outside for so many years. To be here is a great opportunity for me to learn from her and to grow my career and to be part of this success of Superior Grocers.”
Dale Nakata, VP of marketing
Nakata has been in the grocery business since 1985. And after decades in the industry, he made a cold call to Superior Grocers, inquiring about a position.
“The thing was, back then when you came into Superior, it didn’t matter what kind of experience you had,” he said. “I mean, I was 18 years into the business. I’d been a store manager for three years, and they said, ‘No, you come here as an assistant manager, working two to midnight.’
“The first round that I had come in and spoke to Superior, I actually turned it down. I said, ‘Hey, I have small kids. This just doesn’t really work with my lifestyle.’ And about a year later, I called them back, and they said, ‘Yeah, we remember you.’ So I came back, and that’s when I came in 2003. I’ve been here over 17 years.”
Nakata started as a category manager. And for the first three or so years with Superior, he worked in the stores.
“The first time I met Mimi, she says, ‘Well, why do you want to come here?’ And I said, ‘Well, first of all, I obviously would like to work as a store manager…but I really want to look beyond that. I’m very interested in the backstage – the buying aspect of the business, not even necessarily staying on that operational side.’ And she said OK.
“One thing about Superior that I’ve always had an appreciation for and been very humbled by is that I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things.
“I’ve gone through grocery, and I’ve bought every category in grocery. I moved over to the deli-dairy side and was able to run the deli-dairy for a few years and found my way back to grocery. And then ultimately, where I sit now is on the marketing side, as we engage more in helping our brand.”
And Nakata attributes his growth at Superior – in ways he couldn’t early in his career – to Song.
“I’ve learned so much from her…it’s been 17 years, and you have your highs and lows, and the one thing I will say is that, when we weather those storms and seasons of challenges, Mimi’s never stood back and watched us. When we were going through those storms, she would get in the ship with us and navigate us through those storms, and we’ve always come out on top.
“And that’s one thing that I really admire – the fact that it wasn’t, ‘you guys, you guys, you guys.’ It was ‘us.’ It is always ‘us.’ And that’s something, as part of her legacy, she was all about her team. I mean, she really values her employees. And hence, that’s why I’ve been here for 17 and a half years.
“There are so many lessons that can be learned from Mimi. And the one thing that I think about almost daily is – be humble. Keep an open mind. Because you go through those peaks and valleys. And I’ve learned that when you’re doing really well, you can’t sit back on that and let your head get big and rest on your laurels.
“At the same time, when you’re down, you can’t let that be a distraction. You can’t let all the criticism, you can’t let all the mistakes, hold you down. Both sides of it – that’s something that I really learned, and it all comes back to being humble.”
Enrique Montes, VP of HR
Montes first joined Superior right out of college in 1997. And he knew right away that the company felt like the right fit, based on his impression of Song.
“One of the things that I vividly remember from that time period is the dedication and really the love Mimi had for the company and for the employees. I have always seen her dedication to the employees.
“Back in those years, the company was very successful and doing really good. That enabled the company, Mimi, to give out annual bonuses – Christmas bonuses to employees. And I vividly recall, at that point, we probably had anywhere between 15 to 20 stores. Mimi visited every store during the holidays to personally congratulate and thank employees and hand out these bonuses.”
And years later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mimi and her executive team at Superior decided to send a message to all of the employees.
“I can’t expect, me as being head of HR, telling employees, ‘Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be OK,’ but yet I’m bunkered down, and I’m like locked up at home…I was doing my usual store visits…And they were pleasantly surprised.
“I’m like, ‘But why wouldn’t I be here? I’m no different. My life is no different than yours. We need to make sure that we follow the guidelines. Let’s do this together.’
“I remember vividly having lunch with another district manager and the store director that was there. Obviously, we were social distancing ourselves at different tables. And I see this lady come upstairs, and we thought it was a customer, to be honest. We all turned around and I said, ‘Ma’am, can we help you?’ and then, ‘Yes, do you know who I am?’ We were like, ‘No, we don’t. Can we help you?’
“She has a big hat, she’s wearing her mask, and then a face shield, and then once she took off the hat, it really gave it away. We’re like, ‘Mimi?’
“And my first reaction was, ‘Mimi, what are you doing here? I’m here to represent you.’ And she goes, ‘Enrique, no one is more important than anybody else. Everybody’s life is important. And I’m here to let all of my employees know. I know you know that, but I want to make sure all of the employees know.’”
Montes said he looks back on that moment and realizes, “It’s just one recent impact of Mimi because she truly does care.”
Mari Mani, VP of meat
Mani is one of Superior’s longest-serving employees, beginning her career some 27 years ago. But, she said, “I started working here by mistake.”
“I came from Mexico when I was 17 years old. Most of my family was here, so it was only my sister and myself over there in Mexico. My mom wanted to unite all of us. I went to one year of high school. During the summer, I was planning to go back to Mexico…my mom asked me if I could help one of her friends go fill out an application, and I did.
“I remember the bottom said, ‘Did you fill it out, or did somebody else do it for you?’ I put my name, and I put my home phone number…and so, I went back home. And then they called me to go to Superior Grocers.
“I went to the store…when I got there, the only thing that they told me was, ‘This is your uniform. Tomorrow you come and ask for so and so. This person is going to train you.’ And I didn’t ask questions.”
The rest is history. Turns out Superior was short-staffed at the time and needed some more employees. Mani never left.
“Later on, I met Mimi…and Mimi was a young lady that came to United States with a dream, and she accomplished one of her main goals – to own her own business,” Mani recalled.
“I was only 19. I wanted to become a teacher. But that inspired me, too, coming from [another country] like I did, and all of the stuff that she has accomplished.
“And she hires people within the community. She helps the community. She does so many great things. And I think her business is out of her passion and not to be rich…and she tells that to us.”
Sam Kang, director of IT
This is what Kang calls his “second stint” with Superior Grocers. He joined the company in 1996, worked for two years after college, and then returned again in 2011.
And before his first stint, he was looking for IT jobs.
“The grocery industry was furthest from my mind, but I had to seize the opportunity. And then I realized, ‘Wow, I mean technology is just everywhere in the grocery industry.’ I have been in the grocery industry ever since,” he said.
Kang moved to KV Mart, one of Superior’s competitors in 1998 and stayed with them for 13 years. He was ready to come back to how Song ran her business.
“She was one of the primary reasons I came back,” he said. “She is willing to take chances on people. I was recently promoted to the head of IT. It’s a position that I had been seeking for a number of years, but there’s reputations.
“I’m truly appreciative…she was willing to see through maybe some of my shortcomings and has given me a chance.”