Since it was founded by Ed Buehler, one of Buehler’s calling cards has been its focus on high-quality perishables, with a commitment to selling local goods. For instance, Buehler’s is Ohio’s No. 1 purchaser of fresh Amish produce from the Mt. Hope Produce Auction in Holmes County, Ohio. Buehler’s Produce Buyer Dave Graf attends the auction two or three times a week on the hunt for the freshest and highest-quality produce for its customers. It also purchases from local farms including Maurer’s Farm, Zellars Farm, Grobes Orchard and Bauman Orchard.
“We are also a partner with Driscoll Berries and that’s been a win for us,” Buehler says. “We do a lot locally with produce and produce is our gem. We continue to innovate and develop and improve the freshness in our produce department.”
Buehler stresses that standard goes for every one of its 15 stores, no matter what the size or location – from its 85,000-square-foot flagship to its mid-size stores ranging from 60,000 to 70,000 square feet. It also applies to its smaller layouts, an approach which Buehler says has been performing well for the company.
Size Doesn’t Matter
“A lot of our store formats are very large but our original store in Wooster, Ohio, we kept smaller,” says Dan Shanahan, president and COO. “We’ve found that the smaller store has been doing very well for us over the last few years.”
The smaller layout in Wooster has been doing so well, in fact, that Buehler’s decided to open additional stores using the same concept. Last year it added a location in Portage Lakes, Ohio, and is following up with another that will open in the fall in Massillon, Ohio, at a site that was vacated by Bordner’s grocery store. Buehler’s is reformatting the store to reflect its own brand. Buehler notes the smaller locations do seem to attract opposite ends of the generation spectrum – young, single adults and seniors – but says that the locations really serve anyone looking for a simplified shopping excursion without sacrificing freshness and service.
“Some customers like a quick and easy, in-and-out experience and they like to have that option in a smaller store where they can do that,” Shanahan says. “But the perishables have to be just as good and just as strong. Our customers really seem to like that, and we were successful with Wooster over the last several years and so when we saw an opportunity in the marketplace for this type of store in some underserved areas, we took it.”
At Your Service
In addition to opening new locations, Buehler’s is also focused on updating existing sites. Wooster is home not only to the company’s first location, but also to its 85,000-square-foot flagship that is undergoing a major remodel. The project will expand its foodservice operation Buehler’s Market Deli, which has been a major focus for the company as “more people are eating outside of the home,” Buehler says. In the past, the store featured a sit-down restaurant that is now being converted into an open-dining concept with more options, such as pizzas, toasted sandwiches and its new smokehouse dishes – think brisket, ribs, chicken, macaroni and cheese and baked beans. The project will finish up in the fall.
“We really committed to foodservice over the last five years,” Buehler explains. “We have five chefs developing food for us and it has been a huge hit with the customers. We have a panel that helps us with developing new recipes. Each recipe has to get through this test panel of about 15 people and it has to get an outstanding score to even be considered for the menu.”
Buehler’s operates a central commissary that makes many of the salads, soups, dressings and other prepared items sold in its stores. It also has a Buehler’s Bakery in some of its locations. The artisan, made-from-scratch items sold in its bakeries include bread, cakes, cookies and signature creations such as Buehler’s Cream Sticks and Buehler’s Forbidden Brownies.
Buehler’s foodservice division has resonated not only with customers inside of its stores, but outside of its stores, as well. Buehler says catering is a key growth initiative for the company as it services events from high-end weddings to casual sports gatherings. It is also part of a pilot initiative to sell its freshly prepared soups across state lines.
“We have an outstanding fresh soup program, never frozen, that we sell in our stores and to some other companies,” Buehler says. “We are the first in Ohio to participate in a trial program where, through the state and the USDA, as a smaller company, we are allowed to sell product across state lines. It’s been a terrific pilot program and the state and USDA have been great to work with.”
The program began last year and Buehler’s sells packaged soups to distributors under various labels that are sold inside and outside Ohio. Buehler says the company is looking to expand the soup program.
Looking for Loyalty
Although its food is traveling across state lines, Buehler says the grocery store chain plans to remain in its home state. He says the company sees growth potential in Ohio and continues to look for new sites as it improves operations at existing locations. From capital expansion and remodels to special services that meet the modern customer’s needs like ordering groceries over the Internet and picking them up at the store, Buehler’s is always looking for ways to improve the customer’s experience. The right products, technology and locations go a long way in customer satisfaction, but Buehler says the greatest factor in the grocery store’s success is its employees.
From the executives to the cashiers, Buehler’s works to attain and retain top talent. Buehler and other family members of the executive team connected with the Kellogg School of Management to help the company evaluate its family business. Buehler’s recruited a non-family COO and board members who brought new perspectives that have challenged the company for the better. At the customer level, Buehler’s looks for employees willing to go the extra mile with attentive service.
“We know that our business depends on the way we treat people,” Shanahan says. “That includes our employees first and suppliers, vendors and partners. Without the people that work for us, we don’t have anything. Without great employees, you don’t get great customers and nothing works. But if you look at our employee base, you can see we have some very long-time employees and we are amazed at the loyalty they have for us.”