Tailors his store around needs of St. Paul community
Blake Schwartz, owner of Hometown Market in St. Paul, Nebraska, has been in the grocery business since he was old enough to work.
He started as a bagger and rose to a department manager for a local grocer by age 21. He became co-owner of what is now Hometown Market in 2005 and became sole owner in June 2012.
Schwartz said he continues to face supply chain issues, although the situation has improved some from the manufacturers’ side. As far as labor challenges, he said there is a limited employee pool since St. Paul is a small town. “It’s just a little bit more difficult right now.”
Schwartz said his 10,000-square-foot store has about 30 employees, several of whom are part-time.
Customer service is important to Schwartz. He said Hometown Market does not have any self-checkout lanes. While he understands why some grocers are going that route, he wants to create jobs, not eliminate them.
“Who knows, down the road we may have to make a change. But I don’t know how a store could go only self-checkout,” he said. “Customers want to have that interaction with the employees. We’re here to serve them. I think just a simple ‘hello,’ a simple ‘how’d you find things today,’ goes a long way. You don’t get that if there’s not a checker up there.”
While inflation has impacted business, Schwartz said he has tried to keep prices as low as possible. “Obviously, our costs have gone up…we’ve had to adjust some prices at the cost of our gross, our profit.”
He has held off on following suggested pricing on some items, even though “we take a hit on our profit. There comes a point where you can basically price yourself out of the market, so you’ve got to be sensitive to that…we just try and be as competitive as we can, and I think we’ve been able to do that.”
Schwartz said the past few years – first with COVID-19 and now with inflation – have been challenging. “It’s been tough for everybody, all these businesses – grocers and restaurants – we had two years of hell. And then, you get out from the COVID event and, boom, inflation just takes off.”
Schwartz said he has just rolled with the punches and tries to take care of his customers and community. “That’s where it starts and that’s where it ends. You just do the best you can, at store level – take care of the community and run a good store. I think we’ve been able to do that.”
Schwartz noted the Hometown Market location has served as a grocery store since about 1963, when it was built. The St. Paul community has supported the store throughout that time. “Our focus is here with the community, and we tailor this store around the community’s needs…we wouldn’t be here without them.”
Giving back to the community is important, and Hometown Market sponsors a variety of events throughout the year and supports local organizations.
When asked what he enjoys most about being an independent grocer, Schwartz said “freedom.”
“You’ve got freedom to tailor your store around your community…often what works in California doesn’t work in Nebraska.”
He added that he enjoys being able to think outside the box and not have to jump through hoops to get something done.
“There is freedom to run your store the way you want to run it, generated from the customers’ feedback. We’ve been doing it awhile – since ’05 – so we kind of have an idea of what the community wants.”
Hometown Market is supplied by AWG in Norfolk, Nebraska.