by Mary Margaret Stewart, staff writer
Today, Paula Janssen is the majority owner of Janssen’s Market in Wilmington, Delaware, a gourmet grocery store of about 100 employees. Janssen’s grandfather founded the store in 1952, and her parents recently stepped away from the business to enjoy their retirement, still maintaining partial ownership.
However, the way things are today are far from how Janssen envisioned her life.
“Well, when you grow up in a family business, you’re absolutely positive that’s not what you want to do,” Janssen said with a laugh.
“I was actually on a totally different career path. I was a software engineer in California out of college…and then I realized I was working hard for somebody else when I could work as hard for my family.
“I saw opportunities to professionalize the business, and…I thought I could add a lot to it. I went to business school, to make sure when I came back into the business, I actually brought something with me. And while I was in business school, a competitor opened about a quarter mile away, so it was a very good time to come into the business.”
Janssen joined her parents in 2004, and Clemens Market – a supermarket chain based in Philadelphia that has since dissolved – arrived in 2005. Shortly after opening, the company approached Janssen’s and asked them to take over their lease.
“We moved from a 10,000-square-foot location to a 22,000-square-foot location. It was serendipity, but it was one of the few times you hear about the little guy rising up against the chain that came into the area,” Janssen said.
“They truly opened up the street. It’s very small. The town is not incorporated. We have a post office, two shopping centers and an office park.
“We were able to hold our own and then take over their location, which we never could have afforded to fit out ourselves. It was really an amazing opportunity. That was back in 2007, and we’ve been thriving in this location ever since.
“In the next year, we have Wegmans opening about a mile away. It’s happening all over again, but I think we actually have a lane to be in opposite Wegmans,” she said.
Janssen believes the key to their continued success is their specialty offerings combined with everyday essentials.
“I like to call us a gourmet convenience store…we offer full-service bakery, delicatessen, butcher, local produce, prepared foods, catering and an on-site café,” she said.
“We try to make it very service-oriented, very quick in and out. You can get your gourmet items, but you can also get your Tide and your toilet paper and your Campbell’s Soup in the same trip.”
And while Janssen coined March 2020 “a learning experience,” their specialty angle couldn’t have been better for the small town of Wilmington.
“We went from being a store where people ‘topped off’ their grocery buying to being their only grocery store. We went from a store that focused on prepared foods and catering to having a very grocery-oriented focus,” she said. “Prepared foods and catering went to nothing, so we had chefs putting up stock in the aisles.
“We are in an affluent area with quite a few retirement communities, and so we’ve become the only grocery store that they will go to. It’s been a place of comfort for them. I’ve had some tell me it’s the only place they let themselves go to.
“It’s a tremendous responsibility, but it also makes me feel like we are absolutely doing the right things here.
“I am most proud that our team pulled together to create a safe shopping environment and immediately started curbside pickup for our most vulnerable customers. I am also proud that our diversified supply chain helped us have product on the shelves when the large chains didn’t.”
And while Janssen’s Market was able to dive headfirst into the changes that were brought on by the pandemic, help from state and national associations was essential.
“I’m on the board of the Delaware Food Industry Council, and they have been invaluable,” Janssen said. “They’ve given constant information and very good contacts with the government.
“Delaware is small, so everybody knows everybody, but it’s been great to have that quick flow of information from our governor’s office and the state offices to really let us know what’s happening.
“I’m also on the board of the Delaware Restaurant Association. Between those two – because we have a café as well, and we’re so prepared foods-oriented – having both of those trade industry groups giving us a lot of information has been wonderful.
“And on a national level, I’m also on the board of the National Grocers Association, so the information from a national level has been very helpful as well.”
And looking to 2021, the No. 1 priority on Janssen’s list is vaccinations.
“In Delaware, we’re a priority group for the vaccines, but we keep sort of sliding behind some of the other priority groups. Somebody has to keep sliding, but I hope that we’re in the next round of vaccines,” she said.
“It’s a small world, but through the Delaware Food Industry Council, Albertsons – or the Acmes in the state will be providing the vaccine to us. We’ve made a partnership, and my 65 and older employees have been able to be vaccinated by Acme, and then we’re just waiting for Acme to get the allotment for grocery stores, and then they’ll come in and provide the vaccine.
“We were hoping it was going to be last week or this week, but hopefully in the next two weeks,” Janssen said Feb. 3.
In addition to the COVID-19 vaccine, Janssen said they’re looking forward to when prepared foods and catering start to come back.
“Our ‘Dinners for Two’ have been very popular, and we look forward to expanding those offerings in the future,” she said. “We are looking forward to having product demonstrations and samplings again when conditions allow so that we can bring in more new items.”
And moving into the new year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has been easier with the team that Janssen’s has in place.
“Everybody has banded together and stayed strong and had patience for each other and for customers,” Janssen said. “Nobody’s at their best when they’re fearful, and my team has been strong and really weathered in such an amazing way. I’m honored that they work with us here. They’re amazing.”
To read about another independent grocer in Delaware, click here for The Shelby Report‘s article. To learn more about what the Delaware Food Industry Council has been doing throughout the pandemic, click here for another Shelby exclusive.