Former Kroger and SpartanNash executive re-engineers this stand-alone independent to co-exist among fierce competition.
Originally printed in the April 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Kingma’s Market, a family-owned, stand-alone grocery for nearly a century in Grand Rapids, MI, was up for sale. The Kingma’s third generation was ready to retire in 2014 and didn’t have a successor plan.
Alan Hartline, at 45, was a veteran corporate executive at large retail chains. He was enticed by the autonomy and entrepreneurial role that comes with ownership, and the unique opportunity in his Michigan stomping ground. His decision to buy Kingma’s and his ardent mission there earned him recognition as a 2023 finalist for the PRODUCE BUSINESS Innovative Independent Retailer Award.
“Alan took a chance stepping in to buy this stand-alone retailer,” located in a vigorous retail territory, says Taylor Haskins, business development, Vine Line Produce & Indianapolis Fruit, (both part of the Fresh Edge family of companies), in nominating Kingma’s for the award.
“The produce manager Carrie Herp is outstanding at executing the owner’s vision for drawing customers to the most unique and inviting produce department in the area, even with fierce competition close by from Meijer, and SpartanNash corporate stores,” says Haskins.
“When I bought Kingma’s, it was still a community treasure, but the store was tired — it was kind of ‘same old same old,’ and wasn’t keeping up with consumer trends,” says Hartline, adding, “prices were too high” on products that lacked a competitive value proposition.
It was losing its distinctive edge, particularly when racked by an infringing multichannel retail environment — not the least, his former employer SpartanNash, a hybrid wholesaler and retailer, headquartered in Grand Rapids, with a commanding retail presence in Kingma’s enclave.
Kingma’s opened the door for Hartline to leverage his 25-plus years in the industry, and to do something different, completely on his terms. But first he had to convince the Kingma’s family to let him take the helm.
“Quite frankly, it was the hardest interview I’ve ever had. They were most concerned about upholding the assurances and promises made to their employees and customers, and the heritage of the store for the community.”
Hartline says he discussed revitalizing the store’s iconic presence; alleviating the fear of the store shuttering. “A lot of markets are moving to smaller formats like what we have at Kingma’s. So, it’s nice to have the autonomy to map out my vision of what a successful retailer looks like in today’s environment.”
CO-EXISTING AMONG GIANTS
“What I saw at Kingma’s, all of 10,000 square feet, was the type of local community store that co-exists well in a multichannel world, whether it’s the wholesale formats with Costco, limited assortment with Aldi, the supercenters with Meijer here in West Michigan, or buying online from Amazon,” he says. “What you do get from Kingma’s is hyperlocal, and that certainly is exemplified in the produce department.”
In his career, success required “always putting the customer at the center of your decision-making.” And Kingma’s was “an opportunity to ask, ‘what is today’s consumer looking for, not just today, but three to five years from now,’ and to meet that consumer on their terms.”
Hartline says the center of that decision-making at Kingma’s pointed squarely to the produce department for a full-throttle overhaul and expansion, with an eye toward Kingma’s heartfelt culture and distinctive local flavor mantra. This involved a sophisticated procurement and product diversification to separate itself from competition; a traffic-driving, in-store layout/design/equipment makeover, and fresh marketing, merchandising and promotional programs.
His extensive retail experience would serve him well in his Kingma’s venture. Hartline describes a great 15-year run at Kroger, where he rose from bagging groceries to ultimately landing in the corporate office in merchandising and category management. He then spent 10 years at SpartanNash, predominantly as executive vice president of merchandising and marketing, where he helped lead the legacy wholesaler’s evolution to a hybrid retailer wholesaler, “where we began operating like a virtual chain.”
“It started with having the right product, at the right price. We had to procure product more efficiently, and synergistically across groups of stores, and it really became this productivity loop,” he explains.
“Certainly produce and the fresh perimeter were critical to creating the new experience in the retail stores. As we all know, center store is shrinking, and people want fresh product.”
According to Hartline, Kingma’s was well known for its garden center and a few other things when he took over, but grocery was a big opportunity, with the produce department the lynchpin. “They were using a very small distributor, and from a cost discovery standpoint, I knew there were better options, and we needed to get those costs down to be competitive, because we were higher priced.”
To jumpstart the conversion, Hartline capitalized on his relationship with SpartanNash in its wholesale capacity: “I leveraged my previous employer to gain some price visibility and product quality, and to get more frequent distributions.” It allowed Hartline to cut costs and move fresh product with quick turnarounds, where he could offer weekly deals and blow-out promotions to reignite traffic.
Long-term, the arrangement would not fit with Kingma’s need to distinguish itself. “One of the interesting things is SpartanNash is a hybrid retailer and wholesaler, so in this marketplace I co-exist with their retail stores, and they are the single largest traditional grocer in West Michigan,” says Hartline. (SpartanNash operates more than 147 corporate-owned grocery stores in nine states, including primary banners Family Fare and D&W in Michigan, in addition to distributing to 2,100 independent locations throughout the country.)
“Now, we no longer use my alma mater to supply us produce. We made a change more than two years ago to Indianapolis Fruit Company to accommodate where we were going with variety, unique value-added, organic and specialty items.”
“We felt Indy Produce offered greater breadth of opportunity to help us separate and differentiate ourselves. And they’ve been a very flexible partner as we try to do different programs and promotions. We’re able to work directly with their growers or manufacturers to put together tailored programs, much more independent-focused as opposed to chain-focused,” he says. Many of the store’s relationships are local, direct from the farm, but “we still needed a mainstream wholesaler, thinking of the off-season and key items like bagged salad mixes, and some of the core commodity items.”
SpartanNash still supplies Kingma’s mainstream groceries and core items.
According to Herp, who has been with Kingma’s for just under four years, they also work with Vine Line, a fresh produce distributor located in Grand Rapids, MI. “Vine Line can be a little more personal with us because they’re local, and they provide a lot of Michigan-grown produce when it’s in season. But they also provide all the standards we require, too.”
“Part of our differentiation strategy is being able to bring in products that you can’t find in other places,” says Herp. “Indianapolis Fruit Company is our over-arching supplier, but during our local season, we’ll get less from them and a lot from our local growers.”
According to Herp, multiple retailers operating in Grand Rapids and other places in Michigan use the same main suppliers, so everyone is getting the same product at the same time. Kingma’s looks to circumvent that homogeneity to differentiate its offerings. For example, when citrus is in season in the U.S., Herp says she can get it from Indianapolis Fruit Company a little bit earlier, so Kingma’s is ahead of the game by having a variety of seasonal citrus.
LOCAL SOURCING PLAYBOOK
In peak times of the year, probably two months of the year, more than half Kingma’s produce is local. “It builds leading into it, and then it reduces until the end of the year, where we’ll feature Revolution Farms hydroponic winter veggies that we can do in Michigan,” says Herp. Kingma’s peak season usually runs from mid-July to the first couple of weeks in September when tomatoes, zucchini and peppers are in season too, and it will start getting some early apples at the end of August.
Kingma’s seeks out local opportunities, and growers contact them as well, because they’re known to support local. For example, Kingma’s primary organic farm supplier is Green Wagon Farm, Grand Rapids, one of the biggest organic farms in the area, with seven hoop houses and several acres of field-grown veggies. “We’re proud to highlight these great local businesses who make us who we are,” Hartline says.
One grower of basil and microgreens started with Kingma’s and has been so successful, she now also sells to bigger chains.
Hartline and Herp tour farms to discover their potential, such as organic Kessler Family Farms when it was established last year. “We’ve done that with bigger farms as well, like Revolution Farms, a statewide hydroponic operation that has grown quite large.”
ITEMS YOU CAN’T FIND ELSEWHERE
“We will try different things that are kind of wild, that consumers may not have tried before, and we carry items you won’t be able to find anywhere else,” says Herp, emphasizing, “We have a lot of open-minded customers.”
For example, they sell tatsoi Asian greens, garlic scapes, local heirloom tomatoes, and locally grown gourmet lions mane and oyster mushrooms and edible flowers.
They get bins of sweet corn, local apples, or 200 flats from a specific strawberry grower through the season. Following the local season, Kingma’s offers cherries and then blueberries. “We cite where they’re grown, from the particular cities in Michigan, or in other states,” says Herp. “We do try to highlight where in Michigan they’re grown, and our customers will know a place is 20 minutes away — and those are the No. 1 sellers when they’re here.”
“We’re cozy here at Kingma’s,” admits Hartline. “The challenge was to use this pretty limited space as best as possible to make it shoppable and expand the offerings.” So he went vertical with new cases and added extra shelving, with shorter capacity that didn’t take up as much space.
“We nipped and tucked, but, most importantly, we repositioned produce when you first come into the store, where you can shop fresh produce of the season, and navigate the department easily.”
He expanded the produce selection and installed custom-made wood fixtures that present the product well. “You’ve got to have the right feel, with the base being fixtures and equipment to accomplish our mission, which is to showcase the product. So, incrementally over the years everything in the department has been replaced.”
Herp explains when you enter, there are three produce tables used as a welcoming displaym, which usually spotlight in-season produce and or produce with a value to it. “We try to keep what’s up there through the season in the U.S. or in Michigan. That’s the big first impression.”
The main tables are mostly bulk items, with big displays. There’s also a wet wall, where Kingma’s merchandises lettuces, kale, herbs, and root vegetables that need water.
Roughly 25% of space is devoted to packaged items. Most of Kingma’s packaged items are in a 24-foot case; six shelves high in sections, and Herp blocks out sections thematically. “That’s where our fresh-cut fruit goes as well.”
$15 PINK PINEAPPLES
When a supplier had trouble with stores being able to sell pink pineapples because of its exorbitant price point, Kingma’s turned that into a success story.
“We cut it up to reveal its unique pink color and sell it as fresh-cut fruit on ice in a prominent display with fun signage,” says produce manager Carrie Herp. “And we’re getting two or three containers out of each pineapple, to make the price more palatable, so people are willing to try it.”
“It did well as a promotion on Valentine’s Day,” she adds. “We have to be creative sometimes.”
LOCAL FLAVOR FEST
To kick off the local season every year, Kingma’s throws a big sample fest in its adjacent garden center, featuring 25 suppliers, and everything is local, Michigan-grown. Last year, 500 to 600 people attended in a three-hour span. “Our customers appreciate the product quality we offer with our produce, but often they don’t realize it was delivered direct from the field, picked that morning,” says Hartline. “One farmer brought his tractor to the front of the store and created an in-house farm stand. All the vendors give out samples, and tell their story, excited to have their products on display and to be a part of Kingma’s.”
“For us, it’s equally as fun, so we’re blessed to create the platform,” says Hartline, emphasizing that the event creates a different connection with the consumer.
It’s always a challenge being a single store, independent operator to just keep your head out of the sand and continue to learn and get feedback, he says. “I love sitting down with customers and telling them a little about our story, and then doing a whole heck of a lot of listening. In the store, my team is very receptive to customer requests on items. We’re nimble, not like a chain environment, and that’s helped us evolve, too.”
“We are a community store,” he adds, “and most of our employees are part of the community.”
“We’re very fortunate that we have a lot of folks that would love to be a part of Kingma’s because it’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s different, and so we can be selective about who joins the team, and who’s a good fit, passionate about the community, food, and people.”
FUTURE GROWTH; STAY TUNED
Hartline did develop a new Kingma’s store in Ada, MI, which opened in 2017. He explains there was some significant investment in the marketplace by developers who had a “reimagined Ada vision” and wanted an anchor market to be another Kingma’s. “The demos didn’t scream a market, and I said no to them twice, but they were persistent, and made it very worthwhile for me.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder in 18 months,” he notes. “But if you’re not doing the volume, and you have high-end fresh produce and meats and things, you can shrink away quickly into negative profit.”
Ultimately, Hartline transitioned the store to SpartanNash, which now owns and operates it. “When I opened that store, they took a hit in one of their important stores in an affluent area,” Hartline says. “When I was looking to exit, they were looking to protect their market, and bought it as more of a defensive play than letting someone else come in and take that business.”
“Fortunately, when I made the decision to exit, it was a very soft landing, and I was able to focus back on my store,” Hartline says. “I was able to take a lot of the learnings from the experience to understand what Kingma’s could look like. I took the things that were very, very successful at the second store and brought them back here. I broke out a wall here, and did additional things, adding a coffee shop, but I’m not sure I’m done yet.”
Hartline has two sons interested in business, and if they join the family enterprise, “we may end up opening up more Kingma’s,” he says. “There are lots of places around town, cities and communities that solicit, ‘we’d love to have a Kingma’s market here, what would it take…’”
“I’ve been so focused on the evolution here, having fun and enjoying some personal time in my career, but stay tuned.”
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HARTLINE’S SIDE PROJECT: NEW RETAIL FORMAT SIMILAR TO KINGMA’S PLAYBOOK
Kingma’s owner Alan Hartline in the throes of developing a new store format in Walloon Lake, an affluent town in northern Michigan, that won’t be under the Kingma’s banner. It will be called Walloon Village General Store, and a temporary store is planned for a soft opening the first week in May, with the permanent store set to open in September.
The region is home to many vacation homes and cottages, luring recreational and tourism dollars.
“It’s been a fun journey, and we’re on a fast track for a few months now,” Hartline says. “They had already torn down what was the old general store and had a pile of dirt. So, they grabbed me at the right time to lead the project, and lay out the entire store, the format, the departments, the sizes, the adjacencies flow, the product offering, really from A to Z.”
Hartline is drawing on his experience of opening more than 100 new stores, and also taking a lot of the Kingma’s Market playbook — leading with produce.