Values Its Neighbors, Its Neighborhoods
“Generic” is how Frank Neumann describes ValuMarket, the independent grocery company he and Gene Dummer founded in Louisville in 1978. “We sold national brands at low prices, but what my sons have now is a revolution from what we had.”
Indeed. “Generic” is not an adjective that leaps to mind when touring a Valu- Market today. The sheer variety of foods at its stores — many consumables an average American wouldn’t recognize or know how to use — is staggering. It’s not likely you’ll find Badia Mojo (a Latin chicken marinade) or guava- and mango-infused La Cubanita Napolitano (for Cuban desserts) on the average grocer’s shelves, nor freezer cases stocked with cubed goat and/or belk fish (razor-sharp teeth included).
And that those foods sell so well to people from many nations is the result of a strategy of “integration and crossover of products,” says co-owner James Neumann. Translation: Similar foods from multiple nations, but with different names (for example, chickpeas in English are garbanzos in Spanish) are merchandised next to each other rather than separated by ethnicity.
That “leads customers to try foods they might not have heard of, but might like better than what they usually get,” says James Neumann, who co-owns the five-store company with his brother Greg.
That dynamic diversity has made Valu- Market a niche provider to Louisville’s growing international population and a retail wonderland for locals eager for adventurous tastes. From its high level of staff and customer engagement to its unique and innovative VM Curbside Direct online shopping option (pick it up at the store or have it delivered), the small chain is equally well regarded for its service.
Deborah Massey Eyre, a longtime patron of the Highlands Mid-City Mall store, knows many employees by name and even exchanges Christmas gifts with them. If her first-grader isn’t alongside her shopping, employees inquire of her whereabouts.
“Their meat and produce people will order about anything you want and give you suggestions on how to prepare it,” she says. “If you don’t want to throw down 15 bucks to try a cheese you’re not familiar with, they’ll sell nibbles at a reasonable price so you’re not stuck with a big slab. They’re just dolls.”
James Neumann says forming such close relationships didn’t come so easily at the Iroquois Manor store, which serves many immigrants.
“We failed miserably trying to sell La Choy bi-packs and Ortega tacos because it wasn’t what our immigrant customers wanted,” he says, adding that the language barrier between staff and customers posed a tremendous challenge. But when ValuMarket’s produce distributor sent several pallets of varied Asian specialties and advised, “Tell us what they buy, and I’ll tell you what kind of customers you have,” the mystery was solved. The day the truck arrived, several Asians spied the produce coming through the back door and descended on it.
“We couldn’t even identify most of the stuff, and they were already rooting through the boxes,” James Neumann recalls. While pointing out some of the store’s unique Asian produce (malanga root, gai-choi, daikon, fuzzy squash, opo squash and bitter melon), he lifts the top of a small box freezer to reveal a few hardened durian fruit (the malodorous melon prized by Asians) and shakes his head. “I’ve tried most things here, but I haven’t done that yet.”
As the staff learned the preferences of their Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao customers, they gradually widened their selection to include brands from Somalia, Sudan and Hispanic nations. The loyalty of the store’s Cuban customer base is reflected in the multiple Cuban dishes on its steam table line. Such successes at the Iroquois store led the Neumanns to duplicate that neighborhood niche model at its other four units.
“Our Mt. Washington store has taught us so much about the real benefits of being involved in and supporting a really tight-knit community,” James Neumann says. Compared to his city stores, which are surrounded by multiple churches and schools, there are just a handful of each in the Louisville bedroom community, which makes for a tight-knit group of customers who know each other well. “At our Hurstbourne store, we have a ton of Indian and Pakistani customers, and our customer base skews a little older than our other stores. So we adjust to that by the foods we serve in our deli: lots of comfort foods that I’d call good ol’ Southern cookin’.”
PRIDE IN THE ’HOOD, PRIDE IN KENTUCKY
Ted Mason, executive director of the Kentucky Grocers Association, says ValuMarket not only aggressively sources Kentucky Proud products, its promotion of those foods’ producers is atypical.
“They feature the actual farmers in their ads and bring them for tastings at stores,” Mason says. “There are a lot of stores that just say ‘locally grown’ when they mention Kentucky products, but [the Neumanns] really take pride that it’s from Kentucky. I think customers respond to that.”
A few years ago, the company bought a 24-foot trailer to haul large loads of produce bought at farmers’ markets, odd lots typically overlooked by larger groceries. Mason lauded the company’s attention to freshness, calling it “highly unusual that a grocer would make the effort to buy produce just hours off the stem and take it to their stores.”
And while that’s a good reason for purchasing locally grown foods, Neumann points out that it’s often cheaper, too.
“I don’t care if every one of my cantaloupes aren’t the same size,” he says, because he believes customers know they don’t come off the plant that way. And they seem to like having the choice of different sizes — smaller families like smaller melons.
Frank Neumann is proud his sons are successful in such a tough market and knows the effort they put into sourcing unique ingredients. “But it’s got to be a lot more exciting for them than it was in my day,” he says, speaking by phone from his home in Florida. “The kids really put a lot of effort into this, going to shows and finding more intriguing items to offer and to appeal to a wider range of consumer appetites today. And that’s why they’re still doing well in this business.”
NO TWO MARKETS THE SAME
Co-owner James Neumann’s take on the personality of each ValuMarket:
IROQUOIS MANOR - Mitscher Avenue
ValuMarket’s melting pot of Hispanic, Vietnamese, African, Bosnian and Asian specialties and customers. “This store has the best Cuban sandwich.”
HIGHLANDS - Bardstown Road
Young families seeking eclectic ingredients, company’s best produce department. “Definitely our best beer selection, too. We’ve got 12 on tap and hundreds of other varieties in the cave.”
HIGHVIEW - Outer Loop
The company’s top meat and seafood department in a family-centered neighborhood. “This store was voted best remodeled store for 2010 in Progressive Grocer magazine, so we’re pretty proud of that.”
HURSTBOURNE - Whittington Parkway
Slightly older customer base, including many Indian and Pakistani customers. “Anything off the steam table at lunch is tremendous, just good Southern cooking.”
MT. WASHINGTON - Oakbrook Drive
Deep roots in a small community leads to event sponsorship in the store’s lot (car shows, Mt. Washington Idol karaoke contest). “They make a pretty sinful deli salad with fresh apples, a whipping cream base and cut-up Snickers.”