Columbiana Foods Inc.
In a market full of large-scale corporate giants, Columbiana Foods Inc. (Columbiana) is holding tight to independent family ownership. The Ohio-based grocer is a franchisee of Giant Eagle supermarkets, which also happens to be an Ohio native.
“We have a strong relationship with Giant Eagle,” shares Ron Graff Jr., vice president of store operations for Columbiana. “There are 300 Giant Eagle stores throughout Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland and only about 55 of them are independently owned and operated. Columbiana owns three Giant Eagle stores: one in Youngstown and two in East Liverpool, Ohio.”
A Dream and the Drive To Do It
The company now owns over 165,000 square feet of retail grocery space; however, since its inception in 1978, Columbiana has remained committed to partnerships, family ownership, the simple ideal of high-quality fresh food and service, cleanliness and community outreach. The history of Columbiana is a simple, but inspiring story of two men with similar dreams who met in the right place at the right time.
Ron Graff Sr., an Air Force veteran who returned from duty, joined his father as an employee at the local A&P store. First bagging groceries, Ron Sr. quickly rose through the ranks to store manager, divisional buyer and merchandising sales manager for the company.
In 1970, looking to grow beyond a single store, Ron Sr. joined SM Flickinger, a grocery wholesale company where he met Joe McAndrew. Joe, who dreamed of being a world-class butcher, also had aspirations bigger than his position as meat manger; he, too, joined SM Flickinger. With a shared vision, the pair bought a former Super Duper in Columbiana, Ohio, in 1978 with nothing but dreams and a $250,000 mortgage.
The risk was well worth it. Ron Sr. and Joe decided to stick to a down-home family-feel, a deliberate turn from the cold, cut-throat corporate operations of their past. The duo vowed to treat employees with respect and offer room for growth. In 1980 the partners bought a store in East Liverpool, Ohio, at twice the size of the first store in Columbiana.
It wasn’t until 1986 that Columbiana formed its long standing relationship with Giant Eagle. “My father and Joe bought a 32,000-square-foot store in Calcutta, Ohio, and that commenced our relationship with Giant Eagle,” recalls Ron Jr. “We’ve undergone major remodels and it now covers 57,000 square feet.”
A Family Affair
As Ron Sr. and Joe wanted it to be, Columbiana has remained in the hands of following generations for decades. “I run Columbiana with my brother, Bob Graff, our president and chief operating officer,” shares Ron Jr. “Our sister, Cheryl Shartel, is also involved and our sister-in-law controls human resources, along with my wife, perishable director. Our children and this company’s fourth generation are also getting ready to take on a significant role in the business.”
Columbiana built its first ground-up store in 1999, a Giant Eagle in the center of the Churchill Commons shopping center on Belmont Avenue. Belmont Avenue is now the company’s not-so-corporate headquarters, with 67,000 square feet of retail space offering an extensive variety of fresh produce, meats and groceries, along with specialty gourmet foods, banking and even a dry cleaning drop-off center.
“When people come into our store they know they’re getting low prices that are always low; there’s no one-day sale or gimmicks,” explains Ron Sr. “Our prices on seasonal items stay low for months and we also offer a shopper’s advantage card that helps customers who regularly shop here save.”
In a market where foreign companies are coming in and setting up giant retail outlets, Ron Jr. says it is Columbiana’s relationship with Giant Eagle that has kept the company going strong for so many years. “Giant Eagle is Pennsylvania-based, privately held and American-owned; you really can’t beat that,” he assures. “We wouldn’t be with any other wholesaler. They’re always on the cutting-edge of technology and marketing.”
Ron Jr. adds that Columbiana’s community involvement has also helped the company’s good standing over the years. “Giving back to the community is our No. 1 mission statement,” he says. “We work with organizations such as 4H, the United Way, Rotary local food banks and schools.”
With a still slow economic outlook in Ohio and government regulations that are less than small business friendly, Ron Jr. says his main concern is remaining a strong employer for his employees and their families. “We’ve been doing this for four generations; there’s a lot of people who rely on this company,” he assures.
Over the years, the faces behind the counter at Columbiana Foods Inc. have changed. However, the dedication to high-quality fresh food, honest service and prices, cleanliness and the community has not.