Bagging a milestone

Safeway celebrates 25 years in Soldotna

Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2008

 

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  Toni Scroggins takes care of paperwork in the store's inventory control office. She has worked for Safeway since 1978 and has been at the Soldotna store from its beginning.

Sue Ashford, right, rings up Betty Orth during a shift earlier this month. Ashford has been with Soldotna Safeway since the store opened.

They might not know your name, but there's a lot they do know about you: your favorite snacks, your favorite cut of meat, what makes your family happy or sad, if you're in good health or if someone in the family is sick, when you're planning a party or expecting company, even your date of birth.

While you might not realize it, if you've lived in the Soldotna area any length of time, you've probably formed a relationship with them. They've certainly learned a lot about you.

 

Toni Scroggins takes care of paperwork in the store's inventory control office. She has worked for Safeway since 1978 and has been at the Soldotna store from its beginning.

No, it's not some government agency that's collected all this information; it's the staff at the supermarket.

"Most people are routine shoppers, so for the most part, they come in at the same part of the day," said Sue Ashford, a checker at the Soldotna Safeway store. "Transactions last anywhere from 10 seconds to 10 minutes, and we get to know a lot about (our customers). We learn about their families, the things they celebrate, things they grieve over this is much more than a grocery store. That connection with customers makes this job worth doing. The customers make it enjoyable."

Later this month, Safeway will celebrate 25 years of doing business in Soldotna. Remarkably, four of the store's employees have been there since opening day "Serving you since dirt" is how Ashford phrased it on her name tag. Several more employees have worked at the Soldotna store for more than 20 years, a unique situation in the world of retail.

 

Meat wrapper Kathy Haines reflects her work during a recent shift. She started work at Soldotna Safeway in 1984.

Store manager Mick Galic is coming up on 20 years in Soldotna, and said he's worked in Safeway stores around the country.

"I've never worked in one where we retained a core group of people. I feel lucky to have as many long-term employees as we do," Galic said.

 

Toni Scroggins takes care of paperwork in the store's inventory control office. She has worked for Safeway since 1978 and has been at the Soldotna store from its beginning.

Over 25 years, the store has gone through a few remodels. Wall decor was changed in 1992 and again in 2002; the China kitchen and seafood counter were added in a 1996 expansion; and the current format was part of a 2006 remodel and includes the addition of a salad bar, Starbucks, hot soup and pharmacy. Some things have come and gone and come again. Galic said the store included a salad bar and seafood counter when it first opened in 1983, but they didn't do well. Putting them back in the most recent remodel shows how the way people buy food has changed, Galic said. With more two-income households, the focus is on pre-made or ready-to-eat meals. Where the store used to sell tons of flour and sugar, it now sells cookies and cakes already baked.

Through all the changes, Galic said, the store has not lost its small-town feel.

"We really work at that," Galic said. "We have a competitor that's bigger, with the same amenities, so we have to focus on people."

Indeed, those connections between people are a recurring theme when it comes to explaining what makes working at a grocery store such an interesting job.

 

Nicole Popp works the night shift as a price changer. She also has worked at the store since it opened, and has been on nights for 17 years. "We really have a stable work crew," she said. "When we first started we went through a lot of employees. Now we have a lot of seniority at this store."

Sue Leritz has managed the liquor store since 1987. She said for those who have worked together for such a long time, the store also has become a family.

"It's quite a big part of our life," she said.

She said she's watched people's families grow up along the way. Some of the longtime employees were teenagers when they started, and now they have families of their own.

"Their kids, and now they have grandkids," Leritz said. "Especially employees' kids. They're all young adults now and able to come in and buy from me."

Leritz said she doesn't necessarily know names, but she knows faces of regulars who come in every week.

"Like clockwork I won't know their name, but I know they were born 12-30-60," she said.

That connection with customers isn't limited to the liquor store, though. Jana Topp, the deli manager, started as a courtesy clerk in 1985, when she was still in high school.

"It was a part-time job. I meant to stay a couple weeks, and it turned into something else," Topp said.

Topp said she had worked in the deli for a short time when the manager took maternity leave. Filling in on a temporary basis changed to permanent when she didn't return from her leave.

Topp said the highlight of her job is working with customers.

"I don't usually know names, but I recognize their face. Especially (in the deli), it's always the same routine. They don't have to tell me what they want it's like, 'Same thing?'" Topp said. "A lot of the same people come every day for lunch, from the (Central Emergency Services) fire department, and from businesses around town."

Working in a supermarket lends itself to a certain amount of celebrity, though people aren't always sure why they recognize that person from behind the counter.

Topp said she gets a lot of "don't I know you from somewhere?" comments from customers whose faces she recognizes when she sees them outside the store.

Sometimes, people will ask for help even when they're in another business.

"Everybody knows your face and they ask you for help," said Kathy Haines, who has worked at the store since 1984. "They just relate your face to helping them.

"It is a neat job, and this is a neat place to work."

Haines said she started as a checker and moved to the meat department, where she works as a meat wrapper. That department also gets the regulars who know exactly what they're looking for, but Haines said it's also fun to talk with the tourists who visit the store.

"They're always in good moods and happy to be here," she said.

Keri Green, an office manager and an employee since 1986, said that familiarity with the rest of the community has its perks.

"I was on jury duty last month, and they asked me if I knew anybody. Everybody in the courtroom, I recognized," Green said.

Green said she does a little bit of everything nagging people is her favorite job duty and yes, knowing everybody in the courtroom got her out of sitting on that jury.

It can go the other way. Galic said when he's out fishing, he'll get comments like, "Hey, Mr. Safeway, who's running the store."

"You feel the same kind of pressure to deliver good service but that's a good thing, really," Galic said.

Mickey Stanfield has been working at the store since opening day in 1983, along with Ashford, Toni Scroggins and Nicole Popp. Stanfield said she's gotten to know a lot of people over they years.

"You kind of form a bond with them. It's a good thing," she said.

Ashford said there wasn't a lot of competition for grocery stores when Safeway first opened DNA Super in the building that now houses Bailey's Furniture, Big K Grocery in what is now The Fitness Place, and the Carr's store in Kenai. She said the opening day promotion involved a free frying pan with the purchase of eggs, bread and butter.

"It was elbow to elbow. It was the week before Resurrection Sunday," she said. "It was a big-time event, that's for sure."

When she started with Safeway, Ashford said she saw it as a good career because the company made long-term investments in employees. That's not necessarily the case in the retail industry these days, Ashford said.

In addition to great customers, Ashford said great store management makes the job rewarding.

Royce Yeager just missed the store opening. Now the daytime grocery manager, Yeager said he moved up from Yakima, Wash., and started at the Soldotna store for Memorial Day weekend in 1984.

"I was born and raised in Anchorage. I couldn't afford to come back for vacation, so I moved back up," Yeager said, adding that he wasn't able to transfer in time for the opening.

While the store has kept its small-town feel, Yeager said that has as much to do with the town.

"It's nice, at other places, people open the door for you. It's a friendly town," Yeager said.

"The great part about Soldotna is it's so laid back. Up here, it's an easy, slow-paced lifestyle. People are friendly, easy-going," Galic said.

Sometime in the not too distant future, Galic said he can see the store undergoing another change as his long-time employees begin to retire.

"I can envision a lot of people leaving they're all approaching retirement," Galic said.

When that time comes, there will be some big shoes to fill for a new generation of employees.

"There's going to be a changing of the guard," he said.

Will Morrow can be reached at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.



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