Hal Neiman explains how this family-run grocery chain is taking the recession and the local competition head on. Hal Neiman explains how this family-run grocery chain is taking the recession and the local competition head on. Every small retail business is trying to stay competitive in the face of big regional or national chains. But rather than just keeping afloat, Neiman’s Family Market is growing, even as Walmart Supercenters and other major chains open markets in Lower Michigan.

Hal Neiman, who became the general manager of the company’s first location in Alpena, had limited experience in grocery retail. In fact, he’d spent much of his adult career as a teacher.

“For the first six months, the company’s four other investors were nervous as my wife and I learned how to turn around low sales and large losses. But we made it work, and now we’re excited to be moving into a new phase of growth for the company,” said Neiman, who, with his wife Jean, presently has full ownership of the company.

Hal Neiman, president

In 2001, Neiman and the board decided to shutter their second store—a small, neighborhood market—and consolidate the company under one roof when the first Walmart Super Center moved into the area.  

But Neiman’s Family Market didn’t stay on the defensive for long. In 2002, after years of research and looking for the right candidate, the company established a pharmacy at the Alpena location that emphasizes thoughtful pharmacy service. The pharmacist knows the customers by name and cares about their health, not just how many prescriptions are filled. 

Around the same time, the company bought equipment from a closed bagel bakery in town and set up a café in the store called The Bagel Stop. Shoppers enjoy fresh bagels, bagel sandwiches, coffees, deserts, and a salad bar.

“We stay profitable because our intent has always been to emphasize points of difference,” said Neiman. “The Bagel Stop is one, the pharmacy is another, and our floral shops rival standalone florists. We’ve also had a bulk food department in Alpena for 23 years and now have bulk food in all three stores. It gives our clients, many of whom are on fixed income or social support of some kind, name-brand quality at private-label prices and the flexibility to buy only the amounts they need.”

Neiman’s Family Market’s biggest investment yet came between the winter of 2006 and the spring of 2007 when the company went from one store and 120 employees to three stores and 340 employees in less than 12 months.

“That was a tumultuous year, but everyone pulled together and made it work. That’s how things are done here: whatever the challenge is, we all know we can figure out a solution,” Neiman said.

Transition to growth mode

The second Neiman’s Family Market location is in Tawas, Mich. The family took over a grocery that went bankrupt when Walmart moved into town, and Neiman said the company had no intention of expanding any further. But when another small grocery chain left Michigan, its St.Clair location—Neiman’s childhood home and where much of his family still lives—became available. The Neimans couldn’t resist. 

“After we caught our breath, we realized we needed to make a lot of changes to how this company was run to make it through such a quick and huge growth spurt and to continue to grow,” Neiman said.

Neiman and the board went on a three-day planning retreat directed by a consultant from Kansas, Paul Adams, to establish long-term goals, succession plans, and assess processes. Given the success of these retreats, Neiman plans to hold similar meetings on a bi-annual basis, with department-specific meetings in between.

“No one knows the problems we face or what the customers need better than the people who see them every day,” he said. “The best way to improve our business is to listen to our people on the floor who directly serve our customers and make this company successful.”

Many key decisions have surfaced, such as the addition of two key positions in the near future, including a full-time HR director and a full-time pricing coordinator. 

Since the Tawas and St. Clair acquisitions, Neiman’s has evaluated other opportunities for growth, but Neiman said there are no plans to add another location until he and his team are satisfied all three locations are up to speed. The St. Clair location is presently focused on its recently opened pharmacy department. All three stores added scratch donut operations and are working to make them second to none in the state. 

But no matter how bad the recession becomes or how many big-box chains move into Michigan, Neiman said one simple tenet will guide the company through: when problems or difficulties show up at the door, “Just Figure ‘Em Out”. “Our team proved that it wasn’t afraid of challenges in 2007. Whatever happens, we will figure out a solution,” concluded Neiman.