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Published: Tuesday, 10/2/2001

Churchill's seeks own portion of market


In 1947, Churchill's on Central Avenue at Cheltenham Road became the first corner market in Toledo to offer off-street parking and a large supply of frozen meats.

The company eventually added innovations, grew into a six-store chain, and, for a while was the No. 3 local chain in Toledo behind Kroger and Seaway Food Town. But much has changed.

But the 5,700-square-foot building has undergone $150,000 in improvements, including new flooring, ceilings, and refrigerator cases and expanded deli, wine and produce selections.

And, according to Bill Stimmel, Churchill's 31-year-old vice president of operations and the man in charge of day to day store management, has higher sales than when it was part of a four-store chain.

‘‘It's improving,” he said. “We're seeing faces here that were at the other places who have come back to us.''

The company hopes to add a second small store by 2004. But ‘‘I don't think you'll ever see a 90,000 square foot Churchill's store again,'' said Mr. Stimmel, referring to the former Churchill's in the Starlite Plaza in Sylvania.

The goal, he said, is to compete with the small market operators in town, like Kazmeier's or Sautter's.

Ryan Mathews, a grocery industry analyst in Detroit, said of Churchill's, ‘‘Ironically, I think it's probably a better opportunity now than it was in the 1940s.

‘‘I think we live in an era of numbing sameness in retail and I think that creates an opportunity for an individual entrepreneur to step out and create a product offering that's different,'' Mr. Mathews said.

When the Starlite Plaza store was built in 1971, Churchill's was developing six retail formats - groceries, a drugstore, home improvement items, sporting goods, catering, and a restaurant - under one roof, Mr. Stimmel said. ‘‘We lost our identity somewhere along the way. Now we're back to a single format. I feel very lucky to do what I'm doing right now,'' he said.

The store no longer has to compete with the deep-pocketed industry giants, Kroger, Food Town, Farmer Jack, Meijer, and Giant Eagle, which have decided to battle it out for the Toledo area's limited market share. Churchill's payroll, once at 600 employees, is now down to 45.

‘‘It's nice being under the radar ... but it's so difficult to get your name out now,” said Mr. Stimmel, who began his Churchill's career as a bagboy.

‘‘We want people to go out of their way to come to our store.''

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