Founded in 1941, Henry’s has long been a staple on Massachusetts’ North Shore, whether as a pit stop for a tasty sandwich on a lunch break or a catered work or personal event. This popularity, which has helped Henry’s grow beyond its origins as a local grocer serving homemade chicken pies, is due in large part to the personal touch like having groceries carried to your car and its founder Henry Swanson’s focus on ensuring each visit to his market was a memorable one.
Henry’s includes an in-store bakery, a meat department that helped Henry’s gain its initial popularity, an expanded kitchen department that offers prepared foods, a delivery service for corporate functions, and a social catering service. And although the social catering business, which includes waiters and waitresses and trucks with mobile kitchens, is popular, the quality and care that goes into each home-cooked meal is what brings passersby into Henry’s for lunch.
“We don’t use any additives, preservatives, or extenders,” said John Keohane, CEO and president of Henry’s since 2005. “We start with good, fresh ingredients and prepare them as you would at home with traditional values. They’re not gourmet meals; they’re traditional meals like Henry’s famous chicken pies or macaroni and cheese.”
The quality factor
Keohane and his wife Janet took ownership of Henry’s in 2005 when founder Henry Swanson retired. Having worked at Henry’s for 25 years prior, Keohane understood the level of quality and service Swanson wanted but also how to turn what was once a small grocery store into a larger operation.
Today, Henry’s has two kitchens and uses a third location as a packaging and salad production area. “We cook in two locations of the store, but because of the volume of goods we produce in a week, we needed a third location to finish the process.”
In any given week, Henry’s produces about 190 varieties of foods, and the selection depends on what’s fresh and popular for the season. During the summer months, the selection revolves around salads, prepared soups, entrees, and side dishes.
Keeping a revolving prepared food menu requires a varied produce and ingredient supply chain. When the weather cooperates and local farms are open, Henry’s sources locally. The company also has a buyer at the Chelsea Produce Center six days a week to purchase goods and bring them back to the supermarket.
During winter and spring, Henry’s works with vendors across the world, but Keohane still bases the success of those relationships on whether or not they make the grade on quality and freshness. “Quality is number one,” he said. “Whether it’s sourcing from Moraine, Connor, or Utopia farms on the North Shore or a farm in Brazil, quality is always the most important factor.”
In the past few years, Henry’s has expanded its reach, bringing quality into new avenues with the opening of a wine and beer store and a dog spa. Although the dog spa may sound like an unlikely venture, Keohane used the same method of deduction when choosing to open the spa as when he opened the wine cellar.
“We conducted a survey, looked at the demographics, and realized each business had the same customer base as Henry’s,” he said. The wine cellar was an even more perfect fit because it catered to Henry’s specific customer base, which Keohane describes as entertaining and social people.
The company purchased a liquor license from a local businessman, hired him as the wine expert/enthusiast, and opened the retail wine store, fashioning it like a cellar you would see in someone’s home. By hiring a local wine enthusiast, Henry’s is bringing the same personal touch it does to its supermarket to its newer venture.
“He talks to you rather than at you,” said Keohane. “He has also functioned with the same philosophy about business that we have: quality and service. He tastes all the wines prior to purchasing to ensure we’re not just buying deals; we’re making a commitment to each bottle.”
Henry’s does food pairings/wine tastings on Thursdays and Saturdays, and it sends out a newsletter and a wine list to each catered event. “We also have a wine list for our meat department and our special gourmet baskets where we can cross merchandise items,” Keohane said.
Down the road from Henry’s are two national grocery store chains. Although you would assume these would pose the company’s greatest challenges, they don’t faze Keohane as expected. “Those larger chain stores are owned by people not living in this community,” he said. “I am from the community, and I listen and respond to the community’s needs.”
Keohane said responding quickly to customer needs is key to survival in today’s world, but so is keeping a handle on employee satisfaction. With more than 200 employees, some of who have been at Henry’s longer than Keohane has been alive, keeping up with the healthcare needs of an aging employee population is a challenge.
However, employee turnover is low, and most employees understand the benefits of working at Henry’s go beyond getting that paycheck. “We focus on hiring food-knowledgeable people who want to be part of the family,” Keohane said. “We run our business as a family. If people need time off and it’s pertinent, we take care of their needs.”
Keohane’s admiration for Henry’s founder is evident as he tells of the cabin the company bought for employees in New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesauke area. He refers to it as the By the Way cabin because employees are always asking, “By the way, John, is the cabin open this weekend?”
Founder Swanson owned a cabin at Lake Winnipesauke, and when Keohane had the chance 17 years ago, he also bought a place. Keohane felt the rest and relaxation he experiences when he visits the lake should be something every employee experiences. He’s sure Swanson would’ve felt the same.
“I purchased the place up there to give back and show the people of Henry’s what I felt dear about, just like Henry Swanson,” he said. “We carry on his spirit by not letting go of the traditional values that worked for him for so many years.”