Nearly twenty-five years ago, just out of high school, my friend Kevin got a job as a checker at the recently-opened Mid-Rivers Schnucks. He was pretty excited because the starting pay was good, once you paid the union dues.
A few months in, he met Craig Schnuck. “He’s a nice guy . . . wants us to call him ‘Craig’ when we see him,” said Kevin.
I thought it was cool that the owner wasn’t a pompous guy who insisted on being called “Mr.” or “sir.” Like most St. Louis-area natives, I grew up going to Schnucks stores, so I would’ve expected a member of the family to think of himself as kind of a big deal.
Schnucks and, to a slightly lesser extent, Dierbergs, is part of my consciousness. By the 1980s, Schnucks and Dierbergs had built clean, modern stores in St. Charles County. Prior to that, our parents shopped at IGA, Kroger, and Overland Dairy. The Schnucks and Dierbergs stores were something different, though: large, comfortable, and all-brick on the outside. They were hard to beat. Smaller grocery stores and even Kroger soon left the area.
On summer vacations, when my family traipsed around the country in a camper, we visited lots of grocery stores (our trailer had a fridge and stove, much to Mom’s displeasure). None–even Publix and Safeway–seemed as awesome as Schnucks or Dierbergs.
Both companies have done plenty of advertising. But in my mind, the Schnucks ads stand out. Probably because they used a superlative: “the friendliest stores in town.” We locals can’t help remembering the slogan and treating it as a promise, one that colors our perception of any changes Schnucks makes.
Schnucks is a family business, and has succeeded through multiple generations, which means the parents must’ve raised their kids right, since they haven’t run the business into the ground. But the management style at Schnucks seems to be different now that Craig is no longer in charge.
Anyone who has seen family members debate even small issues involving money can imagine how a changing of the guard affects things. Schnucks has had a few bumps in the road, recently. There was the data breach. Then, at least at my local store, someone had the idea to put in a small kitchen where someone who was (maybe) trained would show customers how to cook quick and easy meals. Contractors came in and set up electricity and even plumbing, if I remember correctly. But the idea didn’t take off, at least in my area. Perhaps we were too blue-collar for that sort of thing, or maybe it was because the “chef” was young and snarky-looking, like she’d rather be texting.
Point is, that idea had to cost some bucks, and might’ve been symptomatic of a disconnect between owners and customers.
Now Schnucks is in the news due to the outsourcing of labor and the banning of charities, including those tempting tables of Girl Scout cookies every spring.
It’s possible there are things at work about which I know not. Two sides to every story, you know. Nevertheless, my advice to Todd and other members of the Schnuck family is this: Take the long view. Maybe the numbers needed to compete with Wal-Mart require cagey labor decisions, but if that’s the case, make your explanations clear. And, above all, do what you can to keep the promise “the friendliest stores in town” implies. Think carefully about making sudden, global changes. Maybe pick and choose who you let flank your front doors; perhaps reposition them so they don’t crowd the customers, but, for God’s sake, let those Girl Scouts sell their cookies and let the Salvation Army ring their bells and sing off key in front of Schnucks.
Otherwise, the friendliness is gone and it’s just another store, and we can get that at Wal-Mart.