John Dumais comes from a family passionate for retail grocery. His parents’ families were involved in the industry, with both sides having owned grocery stores.
Dumais started working at his father’s store, Surowiec’s Market in Franklin, New Hampshire, in 1960. The store had previously been owned by Dumais’ maternal grandfather.
“I had a little bit of time as a kid after school to go put flyers on the windshield of cars downtown with the specials of the week…we did promotions that way. But from there and shortly after that I was working on stocking the shelves,” he said.
As the years passed, Dumais started to take on other duties such as bagging groceries, learning how to cut meat and helping put up window displays.
By 1971, at age 20, he took over the family business after his father, then owner, had died. Dumais’ career would eventually lead to the New Hampshire Grocers Association, where he spent 47 years, including serving as president and CEO from 1984 until this year. For about 18 of those years, he wrote a column for The Griffin Report of the Northeast. The publication recently caught up with him to reflect on his career.
Dumais’ grocery store, Surowiec’s, was near the city fire department. Whenever he ran a meat sale, fire trucks couldn’t get through the middle of the street, which ultimately led the city to remove the parking around the business, causing a substantial loss of customers.
Dumais sold the store and reached out to the New Hampshire Grocer’s Association, of which he was a member.
The late John Dixon, president of NHGA at the time, was looking for an assistant. After a few discussions, Dumais was hired in 1974 as an office manager. This consisted of overseeing five secretarial employees. The next year, he became a lobbyist for the association.
Dumais worked with Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr. to prevent the “Axe the Snack Tax” bill from moving forward. Many more legislative battles would follow.
He noted the association has defeated 35 different container bills, with the latest occuring this year. Dumais attributed this to the creation of New Hampshire the Beautiful, which was formed in 1983.
“The organization is a non-profit 501 (c)(3) Charitable Trust supported by members of the NH Beverage Association, the Beverage Distributors of New Hampshire Association and the New Hampshire Grocers Association,” the website reads. “This collaborative effort by food and beverage companies has developed comprehensive programs to address litter issues, recycling challenges, environmental awareness and education.”
A constant goal for NHGA was expanding programs for grocers in the state. The association established the NHGA Food Industry Credit Union for line workers in food stores. This program later merged with another credit union.
Another major legislative victory Dumais recalled was an ongoing battle to expand alcohol sales in grocery stores. This included a six-year battle with the state’s liquor commission, which NHGA won in the late 1970s, to allow grocers to sell wines.
That persistence continued when he helped fight to open licensing for alcohol sales in grocery retail, which had been a limited number per operator. Today, every store that wants to sell beer and wine has an opportunity to do so.
Dumais worked his way up from office manager to lobbyist and then VP before taking over as president and CEO in 1984.
When Dumais was still running Surowiec’s, he recalled NHGA having about 300 to 400 members. During his tenure at NHGA, there was an aggressive move to grow membership. The organization started to hold annual conventions and trade shows – with tangible results.
Today, NHGA, has more than 600 members representing thousands of companies in the grocery supply chain.
“I think in the beginning, the association was mostly for the smaller independent operators,” he said. “We really didn’t have a lot of the major chains. But in that period of time, we saw that there was a growing presence of regional chains happening. And we allowed them in, we wanted to work with them and have that participation going forward. And that’s been true ever since.
“There’s been a great synergy happening in the entire industry. We have an equal balance on the board of chain store and independent operators and suppliers that have worked for all these years without a lot of disruption.”
Dumais said NHGA also realized that many chains were more interested in government relations. Dumais sees technology as the greatest factor in change for NHGA, which also helps with online distribution for its News and Food Report publication.
General news updates also are much quicker through its website and social media.
Then came the need to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic and conduct business through Zoom meetings. He noted some of the influence it had on his decision to step aside.
“I think that’s probably the biggest change that had happened for me at the time…I’m getting a little bit older. So I just felt that it was about time that I took more time with my family, my grandchildren, children and my wife, and that we enjoy life a little bit more…originally, I called it retirement. But I think I’m calling it more like a sabbatical right now…just taking the time off to rearrange ourselves and see what’s next in life.”
For more information, visit grocers.org.