Today, Lueken’s operations also include two liquor stores, a restaurant, a marketing design facility and a 3,500-square-foot aquaponics facility where it grows crops. “Our job is to get what the customers want even before they realize they want it,” Sicard says.
Lueken’s has focused on green initiatives, which include its aquaponics facility. With its use, the company can sell some produce items throughout the year, including lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and green beans.
“As far as we know, we’re the first grocery store to integrate aquaponics,” Sicard says, adding that this is accomplished with no extra cost to the customer.
It also provides Lueken’s with more control. When relying on suppliers, “There are several terrible ‘what if’ scenarios that could play out,” he says. “We’re really at the mercy of weather and anything else. We wanted to try to find a way to better control that.”
This also gives Lueken’s advantages with food safety. “On the news, [you’ll see] recall after recall after recall,” he says, noting that its produce is grown without the use of pesticides or other chemicals. “We wanted a safer environment.”
So far, the products have earned a strong reaction from Lueken’s customers. “They’ve been blown away,” Sicard reports. “They’ve been trying to wrap their head around how it works in Minnesota in January.”
Additionally, “We partnered with the local school so their students can get a practical, hands-on experience,” he says. “This is a model that other stores need to look at.”
Another factor in Lueken’s success is its ability to build strong relationships with its vendors, Sicard says. “In the past, we didn’t really partner well with them,” he admits. “We took their deals and asked for deals.”
But, in 2010, the company decided to change that. “We asked, ‘How do you be a better partner?’” he recalls, explaining that Lueken’s strived to find areas where it had similarities with its vendors. “We had to recognize that we have goals and they have goals.”
One partner is wholesale grocery distributor SpartanNash. “They launched a terrific natural foods line and it’s a tremendous product,” he says. “We’re their No. 1 customer nationwide in their natural foods.”
Lueken’s recent initiatives have not been limited to food, Sicard says. “Retailers have to realize how they’re going to position themselves in a mobile world,” he states, noting that this drove the company to develop its own app.
Through its use, customers can place orders and even develop a list of their favorite items to purchase. “You can search for anything in our database,” he says. “[After] they do mobile pay, our customer comes and picks them up.”
Additionally, thanks to its purchase of a marketing design facility, Lueken’s has increased its number of marketing initiatives. Although the majority of its budget goes towards its weekly ad, it engages with customers through social media sites like Facebook. “[We’re] using it to tell our story more,” he says.
The company also continues to work with new technology, including developing its own virtual inventory software. “Right now, we do physical counts of our inventory,” he says. “In this age of tablets, there has to be a much better way.”
Sicard joined Lueken’s in 1998 as its overnight custodian. As he moved up the ranks, he managed produce and deli departments, as well as operations and human resources. “A lot of our talent has come from within,” he says. “We try to engage our associates and say, ‘What [do you want] to do?’”
He is proud of how Lueken’s staff has taken on challenges, including difficult quarters and making the transition to aquaponics. “Our team has done amazing at just pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and saying, ‘How are we going to fix this?’” Sicard says.
Lueken’s plans to continue pushing the envelope in its work, Sicard says. “I see us being a powerhouse for our communities,” he says. “That’s part of Joe’s legacy and that’s something we want to further.”