PORT ORCHARD — The grand opening of Port Orchard’s newest grocery store was planned for 8:55 a.m. on Thursday, but a lineup of area shoppers in the hundreds were in standby mode well before the doors opened at 1730 Mile Hill Drive in the Towne Square Mall.
The exuberant welcome Grocery Outlet Bargain Market’s employees and owner-operators Greg Bovan and his wife Deeann Haberly-Bovan received was warm and positive — not surprising since Port Orchard group pages on social media were buzzing with reports and images of excited residents waiting outside to get in.
But just how Grocery Outlet found its way to Port Orchard is a testament to the company’s unique independent operator agreement, or IOA, program that has enabled motivated and successful employees to ultimately own and operate their own stores.
According to the chain’s website, an individual who has a track record of successfully operating a similarly sized retail establishment can enter the company’s training program, learn the nuts and bolts of the grocery business, then if chosen from applicants to ultimately become an owner-operator, can have Grocery Outlet invest in building out a store in a community it selected to become a new store outlet.
“The Grocery Outlet strategy team and real estate people go out and look for sites,” Greg Bovan, the Port Orchard store’s co-owner and operator, said.
“And when the time comes and they’re getting ready to build a store, they open it up for AOTs (stands for “aspiring operator in training”) to apply to own and operate the store. Deann and I had to write a business plan and come down here and do market research on the community.”
The couple, who previously lived in Hawaii, was chosen to lead the Port Orchard store.
While the South Kitsap area and Port Orchard, in particular, have a familiar assortment of grocery retailers — Fred Meyer, Safeway, Albertsons and Walmart — from which to choose, for many in the region, what has been missing for some time was a deep-discount grocer for those needing to count their pennies while shopping.
Grocery Outlet fits that bill with its assortment of typical chain-store grocery items, including a large section of off-brand products, all inside the compact store next door to Goodwill. The chain store out of Emeryville, California, advertises itself as an “extreme-value” retail business and has successfully expanded into Kitsap County with stores in Bremerton and Silverdale.
Established in 1946 as a family-owned military surplus store in San Francisco, the company now has more than 300 independently owned and operated stores throughout the nation. A majority interest in the business was acquired by Berkshire Partners LLP in 2009. In 2014, Grocery Outlet Inc. became part of the investment portfolio of Hellman & Friedman.
During the day-long grand opening on Thursday, crowds of visitors circled through the store to see what has to offer. While the array of products on the shelves are fewer than those offered by the Fred Meyers and Walmarts of the grocery realm, the prices of many items were noticeably less expensive. Bagged salad priced at $1.99 a bag was anywhere from 50 cents to $1 cheaper than those at other chains. Franz Bakery bread items also were deeply discounted.
That’s a welcome sight for first-day shoppers, who constantly stopped by to talk with the co-owners filing out of the new store.
“Customers have been extremely happy,” Bovan said. “I don’t know what other words to say. It’s a two-part thing: people are thankful to have us, and Deeann and I are even more thankful they’re supporting us.”
A departing store visitor cornered the co-owner to provide him positive feedback about the 32-person employee staff: “Everybody in there is awesome,” Port Orchard resident Steve Hohnstein said. “When I had a question, I was taken directly to where I needed to be.”
Bovan, who began working in the grocery business in 1997 with the Bellingham-based Haggen Food chain, said he wanted the store to provide an emphasis on organic produce to enhance healthy eating.
“We elected to go with eight feet of straight organic items, and it’s the first thing you see when you walk into the department. We’re excited about it.”
Bovan and Haberly-Bovan also have included an upscale wine and spirits section, highlighted by a water fountain feature the couple created that depicts a wine bottle in mid-pour.
As part of the grand opening, the owner-operators gave awards of $1,000 each to the South Kitsap Helpline Food Bank and the Port Orchard First Christian Church for its children’s backpack program.