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How Family Food Businesses Stay Ahead of Grocery Chain Behemoths

Jenai Sullivan Wall, chairman and CEO of Foodland Super Market Ltd.

Nov 1. 2019 North America’s retail industry has become a case study for rapid disruption. Now dominated by major players like Amazon, Walmart and Costco, mom-and-pop grocery chains are increasingly rare. However, some family businesses have adopted the innovative culture of their larger rivals to stay ahead.

Hawaii-based Foodland Farms is a prime example. Foodland’s 33 stores are owned and managed by the Sullivan Wall family, who have sustained the brand for over seven decades even as local ownership of retail stores disappeared. The secret to their success is a steadfast focus on local culture and cuisine. The stores carry over a 100 unique items that are sourced from other family businesses, about 20% of them from Hawaii.

Their latest store in Pearl City, Oahu will feature items such as chile lemongrass choi sum and kim chee dips to appeal to the city’s sizable Asian community. “We know what our customers like and we’ve grown up with so many of them. We wanted this chance to really bring things that our competitors weren’t necessarily bringing in and adding our Foodland flavor to it,” Lauren Moder, director of Foodland’s Maika‘i brand products, told Honolulu Magazine.

Using local culture as a competitive moat has also helped other regional family supermarkets survive in this age of disruption. Massachusetts-based Big Y Foods, Inc. (or Big Y), Oklahoma’s Crest Foods and Bashas’ in Arizona are all family-owned chains that have carved out a niche with unique brands and special items that appeal to local tastes.

Collectively, these four family-owned retail brands operate 236 locations and employ hundreds of thousands of people. In an industry driven by economies of scale and cutthroat pricing competition, their success is a testament to the fact that consumer tastes still reign supreme.

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