Lueken’s Village Foods
In 1942 Henry Lueken opened a small bakery in Springfield, S.D., producing high-quality bread and baked goods; the operation quickly grew in popularity among locals. Within a few years, Henry began producing and delivering bread to the surrounding towns.
Henry’s sons, Joe and Hank Lueken, grew up in the family business. Years later, Joe and Hank opened their first food store, proudly following in their father’s footsteps. The brothers owned and operated Minnesota-based Lueken’s Lakeside Foods for 46 years, adding new locations in South Dakota and Florida, eventually establishing the business as Lueken’s Village Foods (LVF).
In 2012, Joe retired, leaving the business to his employees through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). By summer 2014, the company will be 100 percent employee-owned. With the transition of ownership, employees elected Brent Sicard, now CEO of LVF. Brent started working for LVF in 1998 as an overnight janitor. When the Luekens opened a new store, they promoted Brent to produce manager; he continued to work his way up, serving as a human resources director and eventually a store director before taking on a leadership position in the business.
“In each position, I learned different things,” Brent explains. “While working in human resources, I was able to save the company $100,000 per year on health care expenses. I enjoy tinkering with things in the backend. I really like being the CEO and coming up with new concepts. Together, we work as a team to develop new concepts. We take pride in being the first to try something in our industry.”
A different approach to groceries
LVF takes an unusual approach to running a business. Where other retailers focus on net profit, Brent and his team focus on building up communities and meeting the changing needs of customers. “People want sincerity,” says Brent. “So many people are rightly jaded because they know companies are taking advantage of them. We want to do what is right for our community.”
Serving the greater community has informed a number of decisions and new directions for the business. In recent years, the company has taken on two major initiatives. The first involves the food system. With foods coming from further and further away, consumers have growing concern over quality and safety.
To resolve these concerns, LVF has invested in an aquaponics facility in cooperation with a local university. Utilizing aquaculture and hydroponics, the business has created a miniature ecosystem between fish and plants.
“Fish produce nutrient in the water and plants filter it out,” Brent explains. “Since the plants are basically just bathing their roots, they do not have to exert a lot of energy and growth is a lot faster. We are growing many varieties of produce, now truly vine-ripened. This has been a huge deal for us. We are looking at doing berries and greens and other crops and eventually we will incorporate this operation as a center point for the business.”
The second major initiative has been improving the way people shop. As technology takes on a growing presence in the lives of consumers, Brent and his team are looking to incorporate new technology into the grocery business.
“What if you could launch an app from your phone for grocery shopping?” Brent asks. “You could go to your favorites, select those items you usually purchase, submit the order, then at the store, stock people have iPod touches. They receive the order with all of the items mapped out, scan them and then the shopper can come to the store and pick up those items, having already paid online. We already bag groceries and carry them to our customers’ cars; why couldn’t we do this?”
Recent market conditions have provided new challenges for Brent and his team. LVF competes with major competitors, such as a highly profitable Walmart, located practically in the business’ backyard. LVF sets itself apart with performance, quality and service. By fighting for innovation, Brent and his team have maintained growth for several years without compromising the company’s core values.
LVF also has strong ties with suppliers. “A vendor relationship is like a marriage,” Brent elaborates. “Step one is to find the right business to work with, one that shares your business’ values. Step two is to commit and communicate. If we set up a product beautifully, we’ll send pictures. Vendors are not the enemy. If you treat partners like enemies, they will respond in kind.”
Lasting, positive relationships seem to be a theme for LVF. Whether with employees, customers or strategic partners, the company acts with integrity. The company is approaching 48 years in business, an impressive feat for a small chain. Brent and his team learn and address the changing needs of customers, an unusual quality for a grocery store. As the business moves through the coming years, Lueken’s Village Foods will continue to provide standout service and quality healthy foods to customers.