E. M. Heath Inc.

70 years of local value in New Hampshire-based food and grocery
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Sean Barr

Every year, thousands of tourists flock to the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and the state’s the largest lake. On the northern tip of Lake Winnipesaukee in Center Harbor, New Hampshire, E.M. Heath Inc. is a local landmark that has been serving the scenic rural area for the last 70 years.  Family-owned and independently operated, E.M. Heath has three specialty grocery locations and also owns a True Value hardware store.

“We’ve been in business here in Center Harbor since 1945 when Everett Health established a small store,” recounts David Petell, now president of E.M. Heath. “He started the company with our slogan that remains today, Dealer In Most Everything’, because the early store sold everything — groceries, clothes and shoes, hardware, gasoline and farm supplies — you name it.”

“Since then we’ve expanded and consolidated over the years,” says Petell.  “E.M. Heath once had two stores in Meredith, a hardware store in Ossipee and also a specialty meat shop in Gilford; since then, those stores have been sold or closed down.”

As the economy improved, E.M. Heath began to expand once again. “About five years ago we purchased a seasonal store in Moultonborough named Jo-Jo’s Country Store, which is open from March to October,” says Petell. “We also purchased Golden Pond Country Store, located in Holderness, New Hampshire. So now we have three grocery-retail stores and one True Value hardware location.”

A small-town store with superior service

Petell, who has been in the retail grocery business his whole life, working in both corporate and independent stores, says he appreciates the small-town feel of E.M. Heath. “I started out bagging groceries with an independent store in the ‘70s,” he recounts. “I became a stock clerk and then a cashier and I worked my way up through a regional chain, up to management. When I got the opportunity to get back into the independent retailer environment, I took it because I enjoy this environment much more than that of a chain store.”

Petell has now been with E.M. Heath for 21 years, taking over as general manager in 2006 and president in 2008. “We have a large selection of gourmet, organic and seasonal items and local products — much more than any big-box store,” he says. “We work with area farms to source the freshest seasonal, local produce.”

If there’s something a customer can’t find in E.M. Heath’s fresh deli, butcher shop, seafood, produce or pantry staple sections, the store’s staff will place an order for the particular item. “In the last six years or so we’ve had to compete with a big-box chain that’s moved to the area and we took a hit,” says Petell. “But we’re friendlier and more customer-service oriented. Being an independent operator, we also have more flexibility in meeting our customers’ needs. If there’s something we don’t carry, we can just go out and get it — we don’t have to go through a corporate approval process.”

“We specialize in carrying a large variety of unique and specialty items compared to a big-box supermarket,” adds Petell. “And customer service is our key to being successful.”

E.M. Heath’s full-service hardware store has kept business moving swimmingly, adds Petell. “Even when the economy is down and new homes aren’t being built, there’s always remodeling and home improvements going on,” he says. “We sell a lot of tools, lawn and garden supplies and we’re the area’s largest dealer of Benjamin Moore paint.”

Connected to the community

Being in a very seasonal area, Petell says E.M. Heath’s staff fluctuates over the course of the year. “This area is not industrialized at all, it’s very rural and dependent on seasonal business through the spring, summer and fall,”  he says. “We range from 90 to about 150 employees at any given time. We scale back in the winter, but we keep our core group because it’s easier for us to retain good people than to constantly rehire.”

Petell says E.M. Heath is proud to employ local youth and be an active supporter of community causes. “We hire a lot of local young people and we also interact heavily with the community, especially with school districts,” he says. “That’s the most rewarding part of this job — is being in a position where you can support students and other community causes.”

E.M. Heath maintains its standing as a family-owned business, still owned by the Heath family, but as the major stock holders age, Petell says the goal is to eventually transition to employee ownership. “Eventually the family would like to see the company assume an employee stock ownership plan [ESOP],” he says. “We’re also looking down the road at other new locations, which are very real possibilities.”

At the end of the day, Petell says business comes down to great relationships and customer interactions. “You’ve got to love people to be in retail,” he says. “For me, having the opportunity to work with so many people — both customers, employees and the community — is the best part of this job.”

After 70 years, E.M. Heath Inc. continues to build its reputation around people, superior customer service and delivering value at a local level.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Chex Finer Foods