Owner credits success to connection with ‘longtime, loyal customers’
Gary’s Foods in Mount Vernon, Iowa, is a family-owned independent grocery store, operated today by the second and third generations. Denny Dietrich and son, Peter, run the store, which was started in 1971 by Denny’s father, Gary, and a partner, Dave Rank.
The two had worked for a retail chain in Cedar Rapids – Me Too Supermarkets – which later was purchased by Nash Finch. In 1971, they decided to go out on their own and bought Bob’s SuperValu in Mount Vernon. It was renamed Dave and Gary’s SuperValu. When Rank decided to retire in 1981, Gary Dietrich bought him out, and it became Gary’s SuperValu. The name changed to Gary’s Foods when the relationship with SuperValu ended. The company now is supplied by Kansas City, Kansas-based AWG.
Denny Dietrich came up working at the store. “I grew up in the business. I’ve been in the grocery business since I was 10. I’m now 66, so you can do the math.”
Although he has four children, Pete is the only one that has stayed with the business. “The rest of them ran away,” Dietrich said with a laugh. “And they’re all happy he’s still at the store.”
Mount Vernon, a town of about 4,000, is a suburb of Cedar Rapids and home to a small college, Dietrich said.
“We’re sitting just on the edge of the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City metroplex. When we first bought the store, we were a rural town. Now, we’re a suburban town.”
He said they are working on plans to redo the store’s POS front-end system and install a self-checkout, which will be its first. Due to climate change issues, they have invested $200,000 in a generator that will run the entire store in the event of a power outage.
Gary’s Foods uses Freshop for its online shopping program, along with Loyalty Lane. While the store doesn’t offer delivery, it does have two lanes outside designated for pickup. The store also continues to offer carry-out service for its in-store shoppers.
With a staff of 65, Dietrich said Gary’s Foods, similar to others in the industry, is having to deal with the post-pandemic shortage of qualified employees. Of that total, he said 25 are full time.
“With the new circumstances, it’s pretty much full staff…I think it all comes down to the quality and quantity of people available.”
As for inflation, Dietrich said there’s been some improvement. He gave the price of eggs as an example, noting that Iowa is the No. 1 egg state in the nation. While prices had risen quite a bit due to the avian flu and bitter cold weather, the cost of eggs has since come back down.
“I don’t think people realized how cheap eggs were to begin with…now they’re too cheap again. I think people’s perception of inflation and the actual numbers of inflation are two different things.”
While beef is more expensive, he said pork is “really cheap.” A ribeye steak is selling for $11.99-$16.99 per pound, while the “ribeye of the pig,” a boneless loin, recently was on sale at his store for $1.49 per pound.
“That’s a pretty big swing, when you look between the species. You can buy pork a lot cheaper than you can buy beef. So, there are some tradeoffs there.”
Dietrich is active in the Mount Vernon community. He is a member and past-president of the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Rotary Club. He also has been a Boy Scout leader for more than 30 years.
“I had three boys go through the program. They all Eagled. They aged out, but I never left.”
He also is a longtime board member of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, as well as a past chairman of the organization and retailer of the year.
Asked what he enjoys most about being an independent grocer, Dietrich answered the contact with shoppers.
“We have a lot of longtime, loyal customers. We live in a small community – you know their parents, you know their kids. It’s just that personal connection.”
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