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Published: Sunday, 7/23/2006

Food Town lives on in 2 stores in Michigan

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
The Lambertville store attracts customers from Ohio as well as Michigan. The Lambertville store attracts customers from Ohio as well as Michigan.
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Sam Jabro clearly recalls the day nearly three years ago when his supermarket opened in Lambertville - and Toledo television stations showed up to cover the event.

"I thought, 'How can I be the lead story on the news for just opening a supermarket?' " he said.

But Mr. Jabro, 41, of West Bloomfield, Mich., knows now that the attraction wasn't he but the Food Town supermarket he was preserving in metro Toledo.

Seaway Food Town Inc., a dominant local grocery company for years, had sold off or closed its entire chain.

But a tiny piece of the company co-founded and built by the late Wallace D. "Wally" Iott lives on in Lambertville and Temperance under Mr. Jabro, who kept the name, hired former Food Town workers, and, he believes, retained the look, feel, and practices used by Mr. Iott.

By all accounts, his approach seems to be working. The company is private, but the Lambertville store brings in up to $230,000 in sales a week and the Temperance store about $192,000, Mr. Jabro said.

Terry Cox, who worked 33 years for Food Town and is Mr. Jabro's produce manager at Lambertville, likes his boss' easy-going style and said customers notice and appreciate the family-like atmosphere.

"We get a lot of people from Toledo who drive the extra mile to come here," Mr. Cox said.

Sam Jabro strives to preserve the feel of the original Food Town chain. Sam Jabro strives to preserve the feel of the original Food Town chain.
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Megan Plodzik, of Oregon, drove to Lambertville one day last week specifically for a Food Town Chocolate Luscious cake.

She was a regular Food Town customer before the chain was dismantled and would shop it again if Mr. Jabro had a store closer to her.

"It was worth it today to come up here," she said.

Toledo shoppers may soon have a shorter drive. Mr. Jabro said his stores have become profitable enough that he is considering opening a store in Toledo, possibly on Laskey Road at the site of a defunct Food Basics.

"I may add another couple of stores in Toledo, but right now I feel like I accomplished my goal," he said. He once owned a group of video rental stores in the Detroit suburbs and was part owner of a grocery store in Holly, Mich., but sold them to concentrate on Food Town.

After 55 years of serving Toledo area customers, during which the company name was linked with numerous community events and charities, 46 northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan Food Town stores were shut in 2003 and sold to other retailers or left vacant by Spartan Stores Inc., of Grand Rapids, Mich. Spartan had bought the Maumee-based chain just three years earlier.

Spartan agreed in 2003 not only to sell the Lambertville store at 7375 Secor Rd., but also to give the Food Town name to Mr. Jabro and his partner, Mark Kizzi, whom Mr. Jabro later bought out. In 2004, Mr. Jabro opened a Food Town in a closed chain store in Temperance.

"The Food Town name was the biggest asset I acquired, thanks to the Iott family," Mr. Jabro said.

Jim Sautter, owner of Sautter's Five-Star Markets, said keeping the Food Town name was a shrewd move. "There are people who are still very loyal to that name and other people that don't like to shop at Kroger," he said.

Kroger, which operates a store a few hundred feet from the Lambertville Food Town, is a formidable competitor, dominating the Toledo area market with a 54 percent market share, according to the most recent estimates.

"Everyone was telling me, 'Are you crazy going up against Kroger?'" Mr. Jabro said. "But the employees were telling me we could do it."

The first year in Bedford Township, Mr. Jabro said, he wondered if he had made a mistake.

Before Kroger opened, the Lambertville store had sales of $350,000 a week, Mr. Jabro said. His first year he failed to earn a profit. Sales are now about two-thirds of that. The Food Marketing Institute said an average U.S. supermarket last year had $297,000 in weekly sales.

David Livingston, of Milwaukee, a grocery analyst who recently studied the Toledo area market, said Mr. Jabro may be inflating his sales estimates. "Lambertville was doing about $268,000 per week when [Spartan] was getting ready to sell the store," he said.

But the new owner has done a better job than Spartan did, he added.

Mr. Jabro grew up in Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb, and worked in his family's Detroit produce market, Farmer Zeke. He said that when he first heard of Food Town from a real estate flyer Spartan sent out, he was intrigued by its history, even though he knew nothing about operating a supermarket.

He said he always wanted to run a mom-and-pop business, as his parents had, in a smaller locale with a sense of community. The suburbs where he had his previous ventures were always highly growth-minded, he said.

Bedford Township and the Toledo area were what he wanted, "a family area where they all help each other," he said.

His business has received a lot of support from the surrounding community, he said, and its success stems mainly from former Food Town customers. "Basically, I tried to learn from the mistakes that Spartan made."

For example, he said, employees said the Iott-run stores were exceptionally clean, customer-friendly, focused on customer service, and used everyday low prices rather than a collection of 30 or 40 heavily discounted items to lure in shoppers. That was how his stores were to run, Mr. Jabro said.

Customers have noticed the similarities, including the Spartan brand products.

"Food Town prices are much better - better than anywhere in the area. I really like their meat department," said shopper Charlene Kastel, of White-

ford Township. "To me, it feels pretty much like the old Food Town. I just like that."

Karen Weaver, of Temperance, also likes the prices. "I still get sale items at Kroger, but I just prefer Food Town," said Mrs. Weaver, who shopped the store recently with her son, Bryan. "Maybe there is some loyalty factor in there for me."

Lambertville resident Liz Koster said the similarity for her is Mr. Jabro's community involvement, central to how the Iott family ran the chain.

Last year while raising funds for the Toledo Artists Club, she went to Food Town and it bought an advertisement in a charity publication. Kroger politely declined, she said.

"It's not the old Food Town, I know that," she said. "But I get the same feeling. I get the same feeling of wanting to be part of the community."

Someone else who sees similarities is Rich Iott, Wally son and Seaway Food Town's chief executive before Spartan acquired it.

"Sam is a good guy and puts his heart and soul into it," Mr. Iott said.

His father, Mr. Iott said, would visit the Lambertville store after Mr. Jabro took it over. "He would hang out there and, I think, give Sam a little advice but mostly he went just to reminisce."

Mr. Jabro, who keeps a photo of Mr. Iott in his office, said the Food Town founder came in "because he was sad about Food Town closing down just three years after he sold them.

"I think he wanted to see that there was still one around. The employees here treated him like a rock star when he would come around."

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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