With Hy-Vee opening soon in Robbinsdale and another Hy-Vee already open in New Hope, not to mention a Cub Foods on 36th Avenue in Crystal; people are wondering how small-time grocery stores in the area, like Almsted’s Fresh Market, are faring.

It’s a common question that Jim Almsted faces on a weekly basis, one he doesn’t hesitate to put to rest immediately.

“We are doing just fine,” Almsted assured Jean Shaughnessy, a regular who came into the store Aug. 24.

“I’ve been coming here since I was knee-high,” Shaughnessy said. “Don’t you dare close and don’t you ever let anyone run you out of business.”

According to Almsted, the key to success is focusing on things you can do bigger or better than competitors.

“Cub stands to lose more than we do,” Almsted said. “But when you’re competing with someone on a positive basis you try to simply highlight what makes you different from other stores,”

For Almsted’s Fresh Market that means showcasing the store’s smaller size to their advantage; letting it be known that they are more shopper-friendly to seniors and young families with small children and to remind people that they still bag their customer’s groceries and carry out the bags to customer’s cars.

“We can’t compete with Cub or Hy-Vee on their prices but we can out-service them any day,” Almsted said.

The evidence of this was in the way Almsted greeted each customer as they came in, even though he was busy. Sometimes with a simple greeting, and other times he’d call them by name, but always with a smile on his face.

“I always tell our kids up front that they have the most important job,” Almsted said. “They are the first face our customers see as they walk in and the last interaction they have when they leave. I try to be a model of that for them.”

Almsted isn’t afraid to get behind the counter or ask questions as they arise. When asked about SuperValu being sold to a wholesaler who has every intention of selling off the retail stores he has one thing to say.

“We may buy the majority of our supplies from them, but we are not owned by them. I own the store and these are my employees, not theirs,” Almsted said with passion. “We are not selling and we aren’t going anywhere.”

According to Almsted, another reason for his success is his employees.

“A store’s success lasts only as long as their employee base is good,” Almsted said.

Many of the current employees have been working there longer than Almsted has owned the store. He admits that 95 percent of the store decisions are made by his employees.

“I’ve always had great employees ever since I bought the store, but it all boils down to the people and the loyalty here,” Almsted said. “Loyalty is big for me, I try to be loyal to my employees, loyal to my vendors and, most importantly, loyal to my customers.”

Maybe it’s the loyalty, maybe it’s the employees and maybe it’s simply a niche that Almsted’s fills that give the store the success it has. Whatever it is, the store isn’t struggling.

Almsted is also the first to note that the scratch bakery, fresh deli and the familiar and trusted vendors pull their own weight when it comes to getting people through the door.

A bit of history

Almsted has been bagging groceries since his 16th birthday. He will turn 66 in a few weeks, which will usher in his 50th year working in the grocery industry.

“I always tell people that they will always remember their first job, which is why I try to make it a pleasant experience for those who start at Almsted’s,” Almsted said.

His first job was for the Red Owl in Fridley. In 1972, when he was enrolled in the University of Minnesota Business School, Almsted worked in the first Cub, after wearing down the manager Cub Davis by asking again and again for a job.

“I wanted to work there because it was different than anything else around,” Almsted explained. Back then the Cub was a bonanza. Almsted worked there through college until he graduated and got a job offer to work at the SuperValu corporate headquarters in Hopkins.

For 10 years, Almsted worked there, then moved on to work for Red Owl in their wholesale division in 1984. Back then he ran 45 stores. In 1988, SuperValu bought the wholesale divisions of Red Owl and the next year bought the retail divisions as well.

“Because I worked there and they were buying all the small stores, they asked me if I would like to buy a store,” Almsted said.

He bought his first grocery store in 1989, the store off Highway 100 and 36th Avenue in St. Louis Park. In 1991, he bought his second store off 44th Avenue and France in Minneapolis. In 1994, he purchased his third store on Cedar Lake Road in St. Louis Park.

For a few years, Almsted ran the three stores, before starting to sell off each one. The first to go was the Highway 100 store, which he sold to Gerry’s of Edina.

In 2000, Almsted bought his fourth and final store on Douglas Drive and 42nd Avenue in Crystal, which would become Almsted’s Fresh Market. At that time, the France Avenue and Cedar Lake stores were still in his possession, but soon those two would be sold to Lund’s and Gerry’s, respectively.

“This was the first store that was a success before I bought it,” Almsted said. “The first store I bought was open but wasn’t doing well and the other two had been closed before I came and reopened them.”

Almsted bought the store from Steve Plant and Dave Dale, who just wanted out of the business in general. However, since there has been a store on that corner since the 1950s, the two didn’t want to just close the doors and walk. They wanted to know that their employees and store would continue on.

And continue it has.

“When I bought it I knew it was a good store,” Almsted said. “Things change and you can’t be all things to all people, but if you figure out what you do best, and stick to it, then you can find your niche. I think we’ve found ours.”

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