By Lorrie Baumann
The Newport Avenue Market family accepts the 2015 Retail Visionary Award from Unified Grocers.
This year’s Ben Schwartz Retail Grocery Visionary Award from Unified Grocers went to the Newport Avenue Market in Bend, Oregon, just the latest in a long string of awards recognizing the achievements of Rudy and Debbie Dory and Lauren Johnson, who have transformed a traditional grocery store into a specialty market that appeals to the hippest of the foodies as well as a loyal following of hometown regulars.
The store that’s now the Newport Avenue Market was founded by Rudy and Debbie Dory, who have made their whole career in the grocery business, in 1991. The building had been a 22,000 square-foot Piggly Wiggly store built in the 1960s when the Dorys and a partner who is no longer part of the business bought it in 1983. Over the years, they’ve added a deli and bakery and seafood counters, changed the refrigeration twice, installed new shelving, improved the lighting and installed a spectacular wall of produce. The partner left the business in 1991, and Rudy and Debbie renamed the Bend store to make it the Newport Avenue Market and continued on their own. “The store has evolved. Every year we make major changes,” Debbie says. “It’s a never-ending story, but we try and focus very specifically on a shopping experience – that every time our customers come in, it’s very visual with wonderful produce and wonderful meat. We focus on gourmet, such as beautiful seafood, gourmet cheese. Our produce is not only very visual but excellent quality. We have everyday groceries, of course, but we also have organic, natural and specialty throughout the store. Customers today are well-traveled, so we really try to bring in foods from around the world, so that we are the go-to source for people who love to cook.”
“We originally thought we would be more like Whole Foods, but over the years, we morphed into specialty foods because that’s what our customers wanted. An awful lot of our products are by customer request,” Rudy adds. “Customers traveled and then came back and requested foods that they had tasted during their travels.”
While both Rudy and Debbie are still very active in the store – his official title is Ringmaster of the Flying Circus/President, while hers is Pundit of Perfection/Director of Detail, Newport Avenue Market is also presided over by Viris, a full size purple Jersey cow statue that dresses up for the holidays and moves around the store on occasion and Francine Bearbottom, a grizzly bear who wears holiday hats, with day-to-day management in the hands of El Hefe/General Store Manager Spike Bement and Leader of the Pack & COO Lauren G.R. Johnson, who is the Dorys’ daughter. Johnson joined the business recently after a 20-year career as a flight attendant and a few other jobs after that, including motherhood, in Portland, Oregon. “The stars all aligned. They asked, and the opportunity was perfect timing,” she says. She moved right back into her childhood neighborhood, buying a house near her parents’ home and only a couple of blocks from the store. “It’s my little ball of perfect,” she said. “Sunshine is terrific. I am so happy. My friends from Portland are more than happy to come here.”
Their customer-centered approach, along with deep involvement in the community and a strong touch of whimsy have earned them accolades from both the grocery industry and their community. In 1994, Newport Avenue Market was named International Retailer of the Year by IGA, and hardly a year has gone by since then that the store or its owners haven’t received some kind of special recognition on either the local, state or national level. In 1999, the Market was named the Bend Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year and received an Oregon Quality and Excellence Award. Rudy Dory won a United Way Volunteer Citizen’s Award in 2000; in 2008, the mural on the storefront, painted by local artist Kimberly Smallenberg, won the store Bend Art’s Beautification Award. In 2013, Newport Avenue Market became the first Boar’s Head Deli of Distinction west of the Mississippi River and Rudy and Debbie were honored as the Bend Chamber of Commerce’s Citizens of the Year. The list goes on, culminating in this year’s Visionary Award from Unified Grocers.
In Bend, the store competes with the country’s largest Safeway store as well as the largest-volume Safeway store in the country – those are two different stores – as well as two Walmart Supercenters, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, a Fred Meyer with more than 200,000 square feet of space and two Albertsons stores that are converting to Haggen stores as a consequence of Albertsons’ divestiture following the merger with Safeway. Altogether, Newport Avenue Market has 15 direct competitors in a city that had about 81,000 residents for the 2010 U.S. Census. In spite of that, the store is into its fourth consecutive year of double-digit sales growth. “We need to be on our toes. There are two or three more stores coming this summer that are breaking ground now – new stores with new banners,” Debbie says. “We don’t lack competition in Bend, Oregon. We very much stay focused on who we are and what we need to do to stay in business.”
Lauren and Rudy in front of their produce wall
Staying on their toes means keeping up with the latest food trends, connecting with their community, and working hard to make a visit to their store a visually appealing and entertaining experience. Besides the fun with Viris and Francine Bear-Bottom, the store also houses a 1953 Farm-All tractor in the produce department as well as carousel pieces around the store and a produce wall that’s regarded as a piece of art in its own right. “Visually, we have a lot of fun,” Debbie says.
“We keep using the term ‘experience,’ but it runs a little deeper than that,” Johnson adds. “We have European-style shoppers, so the relationships between staff and customers are very important. Connecting, not only with our staff, but with their neighbors and keeping up on what’s happening in their neighborhoods.” Fostering the connections between staff and customers requires the right employees, and Newport Avenue Market has several who’ve been with the store more than 30 years, including General Store Manager Bement, who’s been working with Rudy since 1983 and has been store manager of Newport Avenue Market since 1991. “We understand that our job as managers is to make good decisions so our people can count on their jobs,” Rudy says. “It is our job to make sure that we’re trying to do the right thing, and, knock on wood, that has filtered down.”
People often ask Rudy and Debbie how they get so many great employees, and Rudy says he asks himself that question sometimes too. “We try to pay them decently,” he says. “We understand with staff that they have to make a living.” The store still pays 100 percent of health insurance costs for its employees and has a 401(k) program with employer matching. The store also has a bonus program and offers grocery rebates that can return $2,000 to $3,000 to an employee at the end of the year. “We’ve always believed in happy employees who can be customers too,” Rudy says.
“It’s really important to know,” Johnson adds, “that while we’re the face of it, it’s really our staff who are pretty amazing and who work hard to make us who we are – and our customers who choose to shop with us.”
This story was originally published in the April, 2015 issue of Gourmet News, a publication of Oser Communications Group.