This grocery store chain may not be the largest around, but it takes the time to find out how it can help its customers. With nine grocery stores in Virginia and North Carolina, Farmer’s Foods is a small chain that is looking to grow without losing sight of the needs of its customers. “We think we really know our customer base and really cater to it,” said Pedro Carrasco, the director of marketing and procurement. “We provide the goods and items our customers want; we don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The grocery chain’s customers are typically blue-collar, according to Carrasco. On both large and small scales, the chain targets its customers to make sure they get the best shopping experience.

On the larger scale, that includes regularly putting out a flyer in Spanish targeted to Hispanic customers. Carrasco said the chain also markets around special holidays and events such as Kwanzaa and Black History Month in February.

The stores also make sure they take care of customer needs at an individual level. “We had one woman who came into one of our stores who was on a gluten-restricted diet,” Carrasco said. “We didn’t have the items she needed in our store, but through our distributor, we were able to get them for her. That’s just a small example of what we are able to do for one of our customers in one of our stores.”

The company also helped a number of its elderly customers when a cold snap hit the region during the holidays. “We brought a lot of baskets of edibles to elderly people who couldn’t get out of their houses because of the cold,” Carrasco said. 

Farmer’s Foods has taken an original approach to donating food to the needy. The company partnered with Red Fred & Carl-The-Cook, owners of Big Show Foods and makers of John Boy & Billy Grillin’ Sauces, for the Feed The Folks That Feed The Hungry food drives. The stores marketed their own John Boy and Billy Chicken Wings using the John Boy and Billy barbecue sauce, and for every can of food donated to the food drive, the stores gave out a chicken wing cooked with the sauce. In the program’s first year, the chain donated nearly 7,000 pounds of food to local pantries and food banks.

Commitment to growth

John Farmer started the grocery chain with a single store in Chase City, Va. in 1962. Two more stores are scheduled to open by the end of the year, and Farmer said he is looking to expand the chain to 17 stores by 2015.

Carrasco said the plan isn’t to expand beyond Virginia and North Carolina, but to build the additional stores in the existing region. “We’re in a pretty big geographic region, so we should do fine if we go and fill in between the dots,” he said.

In addition to opening two stores this year, the chain is renovating and holding grand reopenings of two of its North Carolina stores. The goal of the renovations is to make them more efficient and workable for the customers.

“We did the unthinkable with the renovations,” Carrasco said. “We cut four feet off the aisles at the fronts of the stores and three feet from the back, taking away from shelf space, so that there would be more display space and the customers wouldn’t feel as cramped.”

At the heart of the success of the stores are the employees, management teams, and directors. Carrasco said a large number of the store managers have been with the company for many years and added that they are given the support they need to succeed.

“We’re lucky that we have good people and we have them in the right positions,” he said. “Good managers tend to manage and treat their people with respect. With good managers, you’ll find employees tend to stay longer, and we’ve been lucky to have that happen.”

The store managers are also given the freedom to run the stores the way they think best benefits their communities and their individual stores. “As the supervisory staff, we support and advise the store managers, but we allow them to manage their stores,” Carrasco said. “We give them the tools, but it is up to them to make sure they use the tools correctly.”

Getting on board

As Farmer makes plans for the next five years, he and the company’s top executives have gotten advice from a seven-member advisory board made up of executives from the grocery industry who do not compete directly with Farmer’s Foods. The advisory board will serve as a board of directors and will become the governing board of the chain once Farmer is no longer able to run the company.

“We get a lot of participation from the board members, and it’s been a learning process for each of us,” Farmer said. “We’re able to compare the things that we do and share knowledge. If someone has an idea that has been successful in their stores, we might try it, and they might try something that has been successful in our stores.”

The future direction of the company will be based on the values Farmer has held to for nearly 50 years. “We’ve had good, successful growth that has worked,” he said. “Where most companies get into trouble is when they try to bite off more than they can chew. You have to have cash flow—if you are short of cash your business is going to suffer because you are going to have to cut something.”