'You can still get your Ted Drewes and your toasted ravs': How smaller grocers survive in St. Louis
The small Soulard grocery store that Vincent Hromadka’s grandfather first opened in 1912, shortly after emigrating from Bohemia, has seen its share of challenges over the past century.
From dealing with an influx of much larger competitors, to moving locations in order to make way for a highway, to maintaining customer loyalty, it’s a substantive list of struggles to overcome. But Hromadka also has many reasons for continuing his grandfather’s legacy – and for why their now-106-year-old family business has persisted as long as it has.
“I enjoy what I do,” he told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh on Tuesday. “My two sons work for me full time, and I’ve got a third son who also comes in, and we try to communicate with our customers and supply them with their needs – if they need something special and we can get it, we will do it.”
Along with Hromadka, Marsh talked with two other St. Louis grocers who manage to make a living and develop a strong customer base in an industry dominated by bigger companies: Maddie Earnest, co-owner of Local Harvest Grocery in Tower Grove South, and Chris Goodson, owner of Fields Foods in Lafayette Square.
Local Harvest opened in 2007, with a mission to be a place where people could buy products from local farmers and food producers. It’s on firm footing these days, Earnest said, but the store faced some hard times about five years ago – a period during which its community of customers and neighbors pitched in to help Local Harvest survive.
“Because of some expansions that didn’t go well, we were in a state of shut[ting] down pretty likely unless we raised a certain amount of money,” Earnest recalled. “And … really I did not think we would make the goal, and we did [meet it] very quickly.
“We did a perk with it, but we asked our partners to wait a year once they bought in … to redeem those so we could have some recovery time. We also had a partner come in at that time, another financial partner, that helped … together those two things really pulled us through – that and some really wonderful staff and managers who decided to stick with us, too.”
Goodson, who opened Fields Foods in 2014, also has two more stores in the works: one in the Downtown West neighborhood and another in Dogtown. His goal is to invest in city and urban-core neighborhoods that are growing, and both of the new locations are “heading in that right direction,” he said.
“Our concept is what I call ‘a third, a third, a third,’” he added. “We have a third organic product – the healthy eating – and just like Maddie and Vince we have a third, or roughly so, local product from local farmers. But given that we’re not in northern California or Oregon, you can still get your Ted Drewes and your toasted ravs and your Diet Coke. And the final component … to sprinkle a little fun on there, you can drink wine or craft beer while you shop.”
All three grocers agreed that location and the “convenience factor” is often a key component in building and maintaining a strong customer base, despite a generally car-driven society that makes zipping off to a relatively distant big-box store rather easy.
Hromadka said that visitors to Soulard are often “astonished” when they enter Vincent’s Market and that it “takes them back into maybe a time when there were many small neighborhood stores.”
“They were on every corner [years ago], because people didn’t have a car to drive,” Hromadka said, “and they’d come home from work and they’d stop at the corner store on the way home.”
That practice hasn’t totally fallen by the wayside for some, and Earnest noted that many Local Harvest customers still appreciate the proximity to their homes.
“We have people come in pretty regularly that will say, ‘Oh, your store was a factor in us choosing this area,’ or, ‘We wanted to move here [because of] that amenity,’” she said. “And we’re not the only amenity in the area, but it’s great for people to have that.”
Hromadka added that “a lot of the residents in Soulard call Soulard an island” and try do all of their shopping within that island.
“And we do appear like we are an anchor,” said Hromadka, who has been working at the family grocery store since he first started helping his grandfather at age 14. “Thirty-three years ago when I moved [the store] back to Soulard, it was a desert, a food desert.”
Goodson emphasized the role that “risk-takers” can play in helping keep or make a neighborhood vibrant and said small-to-mid-sized grocery stores are among such risk-takers.
“I think in our own little way we’re doing our own little part to try to rebuild this city,” he said.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan, Caitlin Lally and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.