Village Super Market Inc., which dominates the grocery business in the region as the owner/operator of eight big ShopRites, started in the 1930s as a produce stand with some canned goods.
"I remember bagging potatoes and shelling lima beans when I was 5 years old," said Jim Sumas, the chairman and CEO of the company.
Village Super Market's ShopRites in Somers Point, Egg Harbor and Galloway townships, Upper and Lower townships, Hammonton, Absecon and Vineland are among 29 it owns and operates in New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland.
ShopRites have been unusually successful in a very competitive industry, in part because they are organized as a cooperative of independent owners. The Wakefern Food Corp. grocery cooperative, the nation's largest, provides its members' 300 stores with expertise in marketing, merchandising and financing, and gives them the buying power needed to offer low prices in the supermarket aisle.
Even among the members of the Wakefern cooperative, Village Super Market is unique, the only ShopRite owner/operator that is publicly traded - on the Nasdaq stock exchange. The Sumas family still owns a controlling interest, and the executives leading the company are family members from three generations.
Wakefern has allowed Village Super Market to grow big - with annual revenue of about $1.5 billion - while keeping the more personal touch of a small family business, said Nicholas "Nico" Sumas, 43, vice president of operations and the grandson of founding brothers Nicholas and Perry Sumas.
"Our biggest challenge is to always stay close to the customers and listen to what they want," said Nico Sumas, 43, of Westfield, Union County.
Village constantly updates its ShopRite stores using feedback from staff and insights from focus groups. For example, it recently made prominent organic produce and gluten-free sections at the Somers Point store.
"K-cups (for personal coffee makers) didn't exist 10 years ago, and now we have a 10-foot display of K-cups," he said.
The Jersey Shore stores are well positioned to take advantage of locally grown produce, he said, and also uniquely challenged by "volume that expands exponentially" in summer. "I work every Fourth of July in the Rio Grande store and I love it."
Village Supermarket's biggest challenge, said CEO Jim Sumas, is competition from discount chains such as Walmart and Target, from online sellers such as Amazon, and from the small food offerings found in drugstores and the like.
"Walmart is the giant of the world that wants to put everyone out of business," he said. "Going forward, the Internet is going to be a big challenge. A good percentage of diapers are already bought online."
The company's ShopRites are meeting the challenge online with their own online ordering and delivery service. So far, that's available through the Marmora store, which also delivers into Atlantic County, Nico Sumas said.
The company opened its first ShopRite in 1947 in South Orange, Essex County, said Vice Chairman Bill Sumas, of Monmouth Beach. The second came a dozen years later, in East Orange.
In this region, Village Super Market began by acquiring four Starns ShopRites in 1987 and the right to build in Egg Harbor Township, Nico Sumas said. Then the Vineland store was acquired, Hammonton was constructed, the Galloway store was converted from another brand and Marmora was built from scratch.
Last year, the firm started Village Volunteer Corps to facilitate community service by its 5,800 employees.
The corps already has worked at the food bank in Absecon and helped remove debris along the shore after Hurricane Sandy, said Perry Blatt, 37, of Pennington, who heads the corps and also is director of dairy and frozen foods.
The Sumas executives said family matters sometimes need to be addressed along with corporate issues, but transitions have been smooth so far.
"It's emotional," said Bill Sumas, 66. "You get older and you think to yourself you hate to let go of responsibilities, but we all leave the room with unanimity of thinking."
Blending that family business approach with the power of the Wakefern ShopRite cooperative remains the company's key to success.
"From the humble beginnings of a little produce stand to growing up to where we are today, with the third generation taking over, we should be able to grow another 75 years," Jim Sumas said.
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Village Super Market Inc.
Locations: 8 ShopRites in region, 29 total; headquartered in Springfield, Union County
Owner: Publicly traded on Nasdaq
Employees: 1,400 in Atlantic and Cape May counties, 5,800 total