q&a with tom heinen

I’ve been a loyal Heinen’s shopper for the past 10 years. Now, it’s not the only place I shop at. I’m also a regular at Miles Farmer’s Market (pancetta and Jeni’s practically each week), Whole Foods, area farmers’ markets, Fresh Fork CSA and The West Side Market, though not as often as I’d like. But the majority of my shopping is done at the Pepper Pike Heinen’s. In fact, we’re looking to move and being in the vicinity of a Heinen’s is a must for us.

This store carries practically everything I need (though I wish they still carried Cento tomatoes and would start carrying miso and sliced-to-order pancetta). If I am standing around for what seems like more than a minute, someone asks me if I need help finding something. It’s clean, spacious and I know I am getting a quality product for my money.

Tom and his twin brother Jeff are the third generation of the Heinen family running the 17 stores. Tom was described to me by several as a guy you’d want to grab a few beers with. I spent about an hour and a half chatting with him and I now know why they say that. Though we weren’t in a bar, he’s incredibly down to earth, not shy on words, believes in family and can’t talk enough about the importance of happy employees and customers.

Aside from painting houses in high school and lines on tennis courts, this is the only job he and his brother have held. He was Heinen’s first baker, ran the meat department and just about everything in between. It’s quite a bit more lengthy that my normal Q&As but I was hesitant to cut too much. There’s some good stuff here, including news on future stores, the importance of the customer experience and why you and I will never be offered a bottle of wine should we head home with the wrong groceries.

1. If you had two minutes with LeBron, what would you say? I would wish him good luck and let him know that maybe next time he may want to take another approach in communicating his next decision, whatever and whenever that may be. I loved watching him play in person and on TV. He is a fabulous athlete and I only wish he would have stayed in Cleveland as I’m sure Cleveland does. The truth is that LeBron leaving Cleveland is not our biggest problem. We need to build a business climate that creates jobs for those who want them and raise the level of schools so that our youth can be successful here in Cleveland and elsewhere to name just a couple of our challenges.

2. What is your earliest memory of the store? I remember my dad taking my brother Jeff and me to the Shaker Heights store on Sundays when the store was closed. He would go in and check the store refrigeration from time to time and we would grab the old wooden grocery stocking carts and race them. It was a lot of fun until we’d knock something over or break something.

3. If your grandfather walked through the store today, what would he say? I think he would be very pleased with the quality of products and the services we offer today. He would be happy that we have continued to deliver his vision of making the people and the product the stars. I think he would be amazed at the variety of foods available in our stores today, especially on the fresh side. I think he would also be surprised that we sell so much prepared foods.

4. What might readers be surprised to learn about Heinen’s? That we are a third generation company hopefully on the way to being a fourth generation. Although we have the image of very high quality products and great service, most people are unaware of how hard we work at having very fair prices for everything we sell.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Cleveland and what drives you nuts? I love the people and family values that Clevelanders tend to have. I think Cleveland is a great place to raise a family. I am very concerned with our inability to keep our young people here.

6. If you were mayor for a day, what would you change? I’d get rid of traffic cameras.

7. What’s your favorite restaurant in Cleveland? I love Tremont and think all the restaurants do a nice job in that area. I probably most often frequent Fahrenheit and Lolita. Cleveland is very lucky to have as many good restaurants as we do. It was very different 30 years ago when I returned here after college.

8. What’s the biggest misconception about your stores? That we are high priced. We are maniacs about price checks. We’re very concerned about good value. We only want a fair profit at the end of the day; we’re not trying to gouge customers. It goes back to just making enough to sustain ourselves. Ultimately, you have to compare the true meaning of value. We are not into value products. For example, our beef program. Sure, we’re higher priced than Giant Eagle. But we are source verified. We won’t trade on commodity. We are the customers advocate when it comes to picking quality meat raised under humane standards. They don’t get to go to the ranch, we do. So they count on us for the best and we won’t settle on this or provide a “value” meat that is not to our standards.

9. What makes Heinen’s different from other grocery retailers? The biggest difference when someone shops at Heinen’s is the experience the shopper has. Our shoppers get to choose from as many local foods as we can find. In fact, given the interest in farmer’s markets today, it seems ironic that the best and most complete market every week is in their local store with our terrific supply of homegrown produce and other locally raised products [they work with 100 area farmers]. Gerber chicken is raised in Kidron which is about an hour away from Cleveland. We also offer the most engaged groups of associates dedicated to helping everyone find what they want and advise the shopper about their food choices when needed. We want everyone to leave in a better mood then when they came in.

10. What are the current trends in the grocery industry? What’s next for you? There is a continuing trend toward source verification for all foods. We have always been small enough to be able to meet and know many of the food producers we buy from. We believe in building relationships with the ranchers and farmers so we can get the very best they have to offer and also understand what we have to do to be sure our customers are getting the very best each day. We continue to explore health management through the foods that people eat. This involves offering the right foods and also helping people understand the best way to prepare them.

When we see area of growth that needs help and expertise, we supply them. Wine and specialty cheese are two great examples. Customers shared they wanted more of this, so now we have 400 types of cheese. But the customer doesn’t know all of these types or what to buy, so we staff with people who are knowledgeable; we’re willing to invest in expertise so we can help our shoppers.

Wellness is a new area for us and now in 10 stores. More and more people are learning that how you manage certain diseases and health issues is how you eat and prepare food. We’re half of that equation. Your doctor tells you that you have high cholesterol or need to be gluten-free. People who sell food need to help people prevent and manage disease through food.

11. Who is going to win a championship first? This is a tough one. Being a longtime Cleveland sports fan, I have learned to wait for the next championship. But if I had to guess, it will come from the Browns and in the next five years. I love all our teams, always have. My family has had season tickets to all three teams for as long as most of the teams have been in existence.

12. Over the past few years, there’s been a big wake-up call among consumers. We’ve seen more and more people getting back to basics – buying local and in-season, and asking where their food comes from, particularly meat. How has Heinen’s responded to this movement and growing food concerns? As I mentioned earlier, knowing our sources is a major strategic initiative. My grandfather started out picking all his own beef in the stockyards and the produce buyer would buy most of our produce in the local market because he could look and touch everything. Today, although we cannot select specific meat in stockyards, we do visit all our processors, ranchers and farmers as often as we can so we can thoroughly understand how our products are being raised and farmed. Our beef and pork have been source verified since 1997 and we only buy product from programs that manage animals in a humane and appropriate way. We currently are exploring a joint program called “Where Food Comes From” that would involve labeling and web access to help our customers learn about the farmers and ranchers we are purchasing our food from.

13. What are the best days/times to grocery shop? We would hope customers have a good experience at any time, but the busiest hours are 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. and again from 4 p.m. – 7 p.m.

14. What’s it like working with your brother? The bad part is that family can become more business partner than family. But as a partner, you can’t pick a better one. We were raised with the same values and blood is thicker than water. We really are partners. So many partnerships don’t work because people have different objectives and values. Ours have always been the same – perpetuate the company. We are very vested in having our people be successful. It makes life easier when you don’t have to worry about how someone is going to treat someone in the name of Heinens. We will always do the right thing; we air on trusting our team and our customer. Also, I never have to worry about him screwing me!

15. What are you currently reading? I just finished Private by James Patterson.

16. Last meal on Earth? Strip steak, corn-on-the-cob, grilled asparagus and a great pinot.

17. Any more Cleveland stores? Making money is important for one reason – to sustain the company. We just need to make enough to sustain ourselves. That’s a huge advantage to being a privately held company. We want to perpetuate the company as a premier supermarket, best-in-class. We don’t want to be a shitty operation. That’s our goal. We’re not expanding locally. There hasn’t been substantial growth here in 30 years. Our last big store was Avon. Fifteen years ago there were more cows than people in Avon! That’s an exception. We have to follow the people for us to sustain growth, which we are committed to. So for us to do that, we’ll have to look outside of Cleveland [he won’t name cities].

We have a full distribution warehouse. We self distribute so many items and manufacturer a lot of our own food. We don’t use a wholesaler. So because of this, we’d like to stay within 8 hours of Cleveland so we can do truck runs in one day. So you can kind of figure out what areas from there.

18. Everyone I come in contact that works for you genuinely seems happy to work for you – and never wants to leave. Why? We respect and treat everyone like family. No one looks over anyone’s shoulder. We’ll talk, but it’s up to that person to do their job. All we ask is that your boss is never going to be surprised. But you have to trust people to do what you hired them for – they can put two and two together.

Something is going to go wrong somewhere, trust me. With 2,500 employees, it’s going to happen. It’s okay to screw up. I make mistakes. You learn and move on. People are our #1 asset that we invest in. They control their own destiny. Understand that Heinen’s success first and foremost depends on what experience they create for our customer. We’re as good as a customer’s last shopping trip. So it’s important that we create an environment where everyone loves working and what they do. Personal development and customer service are critical for us. Everyone says that they want good service but we totally invest ourselves in making it a reality. What you talk about and what you lead is what becomes important. And for us it’s the customer experience.

Tom went on to tell me a story about ‘parcel pick up mix up’ as he calls it, which he says some people hate, but he thinks they’d hate having their cars dinged up more. He tells me about a woman from Warren that received the wrong groceries at the Bainbridge store years ago. She called and was on fire – your worst nightmare he explains. It was of course a terrible blizzard. They offered to drive the groceries to her but she insisted that she would come back herself. When she arrived, they gave her a pie and a bottle of wine with their sincerest apologies. She looked at them and loudly declared she was a recovering alcoholic and stormed off! The fact is, he added, these things are going to happen. But when it does, we can only try to fix it and learn. He adds that someone told him once that you judge people by how they correct their mistakes verses how they make the mistake. So true.

6 Comments

  1. Kay
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    Heinen’s, for many years, was the only grocery store at which I shopped. But, as I and many other became more knowledgeable about organic foods, Heinen’s has, unfortunately, not kept up with us in many ways. Heinen’s has not understood the distinction between the “bogus organic” brands like Horizon and genuine organic brands like Organic Valley. It is extremely difficult to get very many O.V. products at Heinen’s — so I often have to go elsewhere for the O.V. products that I want when Heinen’s O.V. inventory is so unreliable and unpredictable. Sadly, I KNOW that when I walk into Whole Foods, I can always find several varieties of O.V. butter, O.V. sour cream, O.V. orange juice with pulp, O.V. whipping cream, O.V. cheeses, O.V. meats, etc. I have frequently requested that Heinen’s be more consistent in its O.V. brand products, but my frequent requests in person and in writing to customer service have fallen on deaf ears. Sadly, now I buy more groceries at Whole Foods because Heinen’s is missing the boat in this area. I now buy my frozen organic grass-fed ground beef at Costco. I hate to desert my hometown family merchants, and I still do shop there, but not nearly as often as I used to. I imagine that Heinen’s is finding its customer base eroded by Whole Foods and Costco and farmers’ markets for a number of reasons.

  2. Beth
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Great interview. Thanks Michelle. I love Heinen’s!

  3. Cathy
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Heinen’s is the best. From the quality of the merchandise to the outstanding customer service. I like that they are family owned and operated. I support my local grocer. Cheers to The Heinen’s family for staying independent! Great interview buy the way. Loyal Heinen’s shopper!

  4. Posted August 20, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    This might sound odd, but I have issues buying meat at Costco. I just can’t do it.

  5. Sadie
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    hey mich,

    read this article:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/opinion/20budiansky.html?_r=1

    It annoyed me very much but I’m not sure how to respond to his numbers.

  6. mark
    Posted August 22, 2010 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the story Michelle–

    What a great asset to Cleveland. Hope the Heinens are here for several more generations.