Shopping Down Memory Lane: West Point Market in transition again

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After 80 years, the West Point Market is set to change again as the store leaves its West Market location

by Christopher Morrison

It’s 1936, eight years after the Great Depression, and three men’s worlds have collided in a part of Akron called Highland Square. John Seiler, a butcher, has a store called Highland Square Market. He meets Harold Vernon, who is very knowledgeable about the business of growing and keeping fresh produce, and then along comes Harry Anderson, a master of customer service. They each pitch in $500, which is equivalent to $8,500 in 2015. “Modern Times”, a film written and directed by Charlie Chaplin, made its world premiere in theaters. F. Scott Fitzgerald leaves for Hollywood a year later to write screenplays for a living and tries to finish “The Last Tycoon.” “Pennies From Heaven” is a Billboard hit; The Dust Bowl wipes out most of the plains; and West Point Market is born.

In the 1940’s, the crew builds a larger store. “The Point” Market, as it is called, moves its location further west, from 577 West Market Street and Merriman Road to West Market and South Hawkins, and becomes known as West Point Market. West Point continues to evolve and go through several renovations to suit its customers growing needs and tastes. Harold Vernon’s son, Russ Vernon, comes into the picture in the 1960’s, when he accepts an offer to continue the legacy already created by the business trio. At the same time, he’s introduced to a major food trend that has just started to surface in the larger cities: the sale of fine wines, imported cheeses and specialty foods all in one place.

In the late eighties, Russ Vernon, retired second generation owner who spends a lot of time traveling needs more space. Expanding the store helps to continue the brand name of West Point Market, with fresh gourmet delicacies, artisan baked goods, and an aromatic café.

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Time has moved the store through each decade, and eighty years have passed since the founders had a vision to make a brand name, “nom de marque,” in Akron. I sit down with third generation CEO Rick Vernon in the same café his father built, surrounded by the same aroma, and we talk about the origins and closing of West Point Market, as well as the future.

Rick Vernon, CEO of West Point Market:

CM: “Rick,while you were growing up, did you ever want to get into the business of what your Dad was doing?”
RV: “Well, I started working here when I was twelve, and I generally worked for food. When I turned sixteen I officially started working part-time, and I would come here every day after school and work until close, and the weekends. I always loved it and wanted to be part of the family business. Dad was a good teacher, and I worked with my Dad for thirty years. And my brothers, I have two of them: when they were younger we all worked together, but they decided on other careers and that’s what they’ve done. My father never really promoted working here or that we had to work here—he kind of liked the idea of us working somewhere else to get experience in the real world, and I did. I went to California and worked in a similar store like this called Jensen’s Market, and worked in all their departments, including finance, which gave me a lot of good experience that I could apply here.”

CM: “What were some of your earliest memories when Dad was running WPM during the holidays, were their important people that shopped here?”
RV: “We had a few celebrities who came into town performing at Blossom Music center or E.J. Thomas, but they generally wouldn’t come in- they would send people to shop for them, to get what they wanted where you couldn’t get in the grocery store. We always had a corner on the market with the unusual products and they could usually find them here-so that was always fun, that’s what we were known for, but most importantly was the customer service; even more so than specialty foods and Dad was the king of that. He was out working on the floor with the customers and the employees. His philosophy was “if your employees are happy, your customers are happy”, and it was a good balance between the two. The store won many awards over the years and recognized on a national level as a premiere gourmet store and people across the country were impressed that it was in Akron, Ohio. “Where?” You mean it’s not in Manhattan, New York?”

CM: “What about commercials for advertising was that even brought up as a way to have customers in the store, to fuel the brand of WPM, or what it had to offer customers already in place to be successful?”
RV: “We had in the past, a long time ago, about twenty years, or so ago, we advertised on the radio through the Akron Beacon Journal, local magazines and regional newspapers; but we discovered for us the best advertising was through word of mouth and to spend that money in house internally-spreading the good word through our customers, almost like referrals and that’s how we’ve advertised, with store promotions, wine tasting events. We were always involved with the community, with the arts: Akron Ballet, Akron Art Museum, things with Blossom Music Center, local charities and donations, or sponsoring events through the store-we figured our customers supported the arts.”

CM: “Now that the store is closing its doors at this location, what have you been reflecting on?”

RV: “Well this has been in progress for at least a year and a half-with what’s going on now with Whole Foods and a real estate developer–we’ve been taking a seriously look at other locations and I think it’s a natural evolution for other businesses, if you don’t grow and change you’re going to be out of business and that doesn’t just apply to West Point Market. So were looking for a new location and would like to keep it as close as possible to this region. Like Fairlawn and multiple locations, such as the Cleveland suburbs, Medina, Brecksville, Green, Jackson Township, Stow, Hudson, within northeast Ohio, and open our flagship store and go from there.”

CM: “Any projection on when these stores will open?”
RV: “It’s going to take anywhere between 8-10 months once we make a deal on a location, and then with the construction another year or so.”

CM: “The Beacon Journal said that you weren’t planning on selling the Market, but offers kept coming. What made you finally say yes to that offer? Was is a stressful negotiating process?”
RV: “Tough, because it doesn’t just involve us, it involves employees, customers, and vendors and especially a company that’s been in business 80 years. We realized we needed to change and it was a good time to Segway into a new West Point for us, to look at it differently. Instead of just one location, but another location in Akron and outside of the city. This gives a great opportunity to do that. And we were also worried about the employees and their needs-we’ve cooperated with Mustard Seed Market and Acme for career paths in those two stores into making proposals with our employees. Goodwill Industries has helped with résumé building. We also gave our employees incentives to stay until December, we can’t do it without them, meaning “you helped to make us, so please stay with us; so I believe they’re comfortable with that now and the customers are too.”

CM: “Do you think it was the right time to sell the Market?”
RV: “With real estate you never know, we had a lot of advisors: accountants, attorneys and it was a good time to make this transition for a new West Point.”

CM: “As a business owner I can only imagine there are flaws within a company. What have you tried to improve since becoming CEO of WPM?”
RV: “There’s one thing in particular; our customers are a little older, typically the demographics are 45-65, so we need to get better with social media to appeal to younger customers. The new store will look a little different, about half the size of this one, but still representing all the departments, and we want to win back all, or as many employees as we can, once we get it up and running, who are going to find career paths elsewhere for the time being.”

CM: “How has it been collaborating with Pres. Larry Uhl for the last 10-15 years at WPM? Creatively? Business, and marketing wise?”
RV: “We complement each other very well, with business decisions such as this one, especially with partners that are 50-50, it’s like we’re married (laughs). Larry’s been great, and this is how we make decisions. For example, generally I’ll have an idea, or he’ll have an idea, and we’ll come together present our ideas and come up with a third idea that’s better than the first two. And that has been really the basis for us. Larry is mostly in charge of prepared foods and shelved staple products and we each give each other plenty of room and flexibility. Larry has been my partner for 15 years, since my dad officially retired”.

CM: “How has the competition changed over the years with the specialty foods grocery market? For example, like other stores in the area: Mustard Seed Market, the Acme in Fairlawn and the one next door expanding? Local vs. food being shipped nationally? Organic vs. Conventional? How has West Point dealt with those trends?”

RV: “The Market has its niche with Killer Brownies, other signature products and our employees, our brand of service–those are our products you can’t get anywhere else, and I think there’s a market for that, and I think that’s been proven with the customer feedback, so far. Generally in the food market place, when mainstream is going one way you need to go the other way, with organic it never used to be mainstream, but now it is. With Giant Eagle Market District, plus there’s Earthfare, and the other expansions we discussed earlier, and Walmart, even they have organic. Our store has it, but not on purpose, if it taste good we’ll have it. We’re a specialty food store, we don’t follow trends, but we look for food trends out of the box; our customers will probably see things they’ll see nowhere else; that’s a reason why we’re still here, everybody else competes on price, we don’t compete on price, we compete on value and service.”

CM: “What about the core of your business (the employees, trademark brands, and specialty foods? Do you have one to continue the brand name WPM has created? Aren’t you nervous, does the thought of losing customers keep you up at night?”
RV: “I think we’re so unique and we’ve been around so long, it’s not like a business startup process. It’s more of a transition, as long as we pick the right location and have a home base I think people will be anticipating us opening again. We’ll come back and have a different feel and look and size. People will have a different shopping experience than here, with all the expansions of this one, it’s a like Frankenstein with real estate (laughs). This will be a chance for us to make a new statement with a new floor plan, and new location. And I’m excited to be a key to our success, and being flexible with the product mix and what our customers want, and if they see things we don’t that we use to have will bring those products back and experiment, we’re fine with that.”

CM: “Finally are you happy and satisfied with your decisions? Has it been a stressful business transaction in the making?”
RV: “Yes, I think we’re going in the right direction and learned a lot with developers and real estate agents, bankers, it’s been a good experience, but that also it’s not just about the specialty foods, or killer brownies, chicken pot pies, we’re in business for the people and our relationship with employees and the community, that’s what small businesses are all about and that’s what we want to make sure we don’t want to lose. My grandfather and the other two gentleman made this store what it is today and we’re still very proud of it.”

Larry Uhl, President of West Point Market:
If you’re not too busy shopping and or if you’re not a regular customer, you might take notice of an older neatly styled white haired gentleman breaking down boxes and stocking shelves, or perhaps helping people with the right setting to grind their favorite coffee blend. Dressed in a white oxford shirt and black khaki pants, you might wonder why he works there among a younger group of employees. If you didn’t recognize him, that would be West Point Market’s President, Larry Uhl.

CM: “What did it feel like when you first took on the role as President the very first time you walked into the store knowing its history and the origins of those before you?”
LU: “When I became President and Rick became CEO of West Point Market, I had already been here a few years, and Rick for many, many more. Russ Vernon had become “the brand”, a P.T. Barnum of fine foods, but was ready to retire. It didn’t feel very different without Russ, because he had taught us well. We tried to maintain the store in his vision as it had good momentum going, and we tried hard. At the same time the store history and Russ had set such a high bar for us, that we didn’t always achieve it 24/7. The noodles in the chicken noodle soup might not have been quite to perfection on a particular day, and a customer might say, “It’s just not the same as when Russ was here”. That’s like a stranger on the street calling your child ugly. We had pretty thick skins to just smile and try to make it better, keeping noodles, after all, in their proper perspective. Rick and I never pretended in all these years to be Russ – he was/is a one-of-a-kind, and anything else would been a hopelessly poor imitation.”

CM: “It appears you are no longer President of WestPoint Market, or you’re retiring from the business after making that public Friday to your employees, November 6th. What helped you with that decision, when it seemed like you would follow the specialty food grocery into the next year with the launch of the flagship store?”
LU: “Rick and I have always worked well together, and I would enjoy creating a “West Point II” with him. But that requires a 10-15 year commitment, and that just isn’t a realistic thing to try at my age. Had we kept this store open, I probably would have begun backing away in about 5 more years. That wouldn’t be fair to Rick with a new West Point II; he needs a longer term partnership to do it all justice.”

CM: What would change your mind to stay with WestPoint Market?
LU: “If you could wave a wand and make me 10 years younger, I would give it a shot.”

CM: With the changing trends in the food industry in the last couple of years: organic and non-GMO products vs. conventional, do you think WestPt Market will provide more of those products to consider offering to the public? It’s a specialty food store, but would it make good business sense to compete with that trend?LU: “Absolutely. I think you will see all of those trends become mainstream expectations rather than special needs as Millennials’ continue to become a greater and greater consumer buying power. We’re just seeing the beginning.”

CM: How many local vendors does the store use today? How will the closing of WestPt Market effect those vendors and the community in Wallhaven?
LU: “I don’t think any particular artisan food producer in the region is overly reliant on West Point Market for the success of their business. We’re one of many accounts that they enjoy. There are a few very small ones who will miss us, at least temporarily. But unlike a Walmart vendor, we have never demanded a lot of them or made them re-invest in the business model they were already following. Many of them have used us as a ladder to climb onto the shelves of other stores in the region, so it has already worked out well for them.”

CM: “If you had to do it all over again what would you do differently? Any regrets?”
LU: “No regrets. I never, ever, thought I would do something like this for almost 17 years. Russ really gave me an opportunity here, and I’m thankful for that. It doesn’t seem like 17 tears – I guess that I must have enjoyed it. We believe that with Whole Foods Market coming to Wallhaven we are leaving our neighborhood in an excellent way. They have a long history of being an activist partner in the grass-roots needs of the communities where they locate. It’s important to them, and they really want to come to Akron. They chose Wallhaven in Akron from about a dozen Summit County sites. Not too many communities in America are able to brag that they have a Whole Foods in their town. Once they open their doors, I think a lot of people who are reluctant right now will be pleasantly surprised at just how cool it is and how it really enhanced the neighborhood after all…”

CM: What are customers saying they’ll miss the most regarding food or events held at the Market?
LU: “Customers are saying that they are going to miss EVERYTHING. I thought it would be a “short list” of the key things we do really well, but they say they are going to miss EVERYTHING. Even the peanut butter! But especially our employees. Many of our customers see them so often, they know their kids names and miss them when they go on vacation and aren’t in the cheese shop or bakery or personally cutting their meat order.”

CM: When can Akronites expect the new store to open and where?
LU: “I will defer that question to Rick. My lips are sealed.”

Apryle Griffith, Bakery Supervisor:

The last piece of this article was an interview with a department head within the store. Apryle Griffith in Bakery. She doesn’t say much, but I always feel like she has a lot to say. She’s well equipped on not just baking, but with advice on flavors, how to think about starting your own small business, if you really wanted to; coffee-French Press vs. auto-drip? Wines, whiskey, good food and drink in general, an epicurean of great stature who knows a lot about, cars, yes cars.

CM: “How long have you been working at WestPoint Market and what is your position?”
AG: “Bakery Supervisor, since Valentine’s Day, 2005.”

CM: Tell me about what you knew about WestPoint before your first interview for the position in the store; its history; what the store was known for; and what did you think? Has any of that changed?
AG: “I was new to the area, I had never heard of WPM. I replied to a blind ad in the Beacon.”

CM: “With the store now closing in less than two months what comments have loyal customers said about the quality of work you and your staff have produced, and what they’ll miss the most?”
AG: “The brownies of course, but cakes that actually taste good run a close second.”

CM: Do you want to continue your position with WestPoint if and when the new flagship store and satellite stores open? Why? Or why not?”
AG: “I love what I’ve done here, the freedom to try new, the responsibility to make business sense, the drive for quality. A business that pushes for ‘better’ instead of ‘cheaper’ is rare these days. My decision to be part of WPM 2.0 would depend on what I’m doing at the time, and how the new place is setup.”

CM: “Is that decision based on recent news, or developments since the announcement in May of the store closing? Last Friday President Larry Uhl said he was stepping down-a shift in management? What future lies ahead for WestPt Mkt-for its employees; and customers?”
AG: “That’s the decision I made in May, and it hasn’t changed. I knew then that the second incarnation of the store would be in flux for quite a while, and that it is possible I could find another place to love.”

CM: “Let’s talk about the art of baking-people often have a story on how they got started on what they do for a living. What’s yours?”
AG: Baking is something I’ve done since I was little, in particular one of my grandmothers had worked at a school cafeteria, back when that meant actually cooking for 200 kids, and she loved baking breads, rolls, pies etc. for lots of people. I’d never considered it as a profession, but I took my first job in a bakery as a fill-in do-this-until-a-real-job-comes-along and just clicked. I’ve been working bakery ever since.”

CM: “What’s a typical day for you at work, start to finish? I don’t think people have any idea what it’s like, tell us.”
AG: “I start checking in with each staff member to see if there are any issues they have or see upcoming, and deal with those, from interpersonal to product to customer to maintenance issues. On a good day that takes 15 minutes, on a bad day that can eat up my entire day. I place orders for product and supplies, from between 1 and 8 vendors depending on the day, checking what we have on hand and what orders, holidays, special events are upcoming. I do the forecasting for production, and let the production staff know how much of each product will be needed and when. I do scheduling for retail and production staff. I used to spend time researching, reviewing and developing new products, tweaking current products or adding flavor options, but lately it’s been how to gracefully end production of certain products, trying to predict exactly how much of any given product we’ll need, if it makes sense to carry it to the end or not, and how to use up ingredients. I’ve tried to help Rick decide what equipment, what products would make sense for a new store.”

CM: Finally-Why haven’t you opened your own bakery? Is it something you’ve thought about seriously? What’s next for your career?
AG: “I’ve thought about starting my own bakery, but the actual owning of a bakery, or any business, involves a lot of stuff I don’t much care for. I’ve been very happy working for small businesses, I like having the ear of the owner and want to be heard, but accept that I’ve given up final say.”

Quotes from customers:

“I’ll always remember during the holidays especially around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve the crowded lines would be all the way from the cash registers to produce. West Point would serve hot cider and hot chocolate for those standing in line waiting. Buses from Cleveland would be lined up outside to shop during the seventies and eighties. I don’t know what this store will be like when it’s gone from this area. I get all my prepared foods, bakery goods and meats from here. Where am I supposed to go for specialties?”

“My earliest memory was when I was in my twenties. My girlfriend and I knew nothing about wine, we were like two deer stuck in the headlights when came to wine, but thanks to the knowledgeable advice of the people who sell the wine at the WPM we learn how to taste and appreciate great wine.”

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