Merchant’s Grocery has withstood the test of time.
The Culpeper wholesaler celebrated its 100th anniversary Saturday with employees, vendors and community members as the company’s leaders reflected on what has made the business successful.
“It’s about having good people who care,” company President Chris Smythers said. “We care about our employees, we care about our customers. That’s what it’s really about. That’s what the company is founded on, Christian principles. We stick by those.”
Merchant’s, which employs 140 and delivers food and convenience products as far south as Pulaski and as far north as Maryland, began in 1917 by 16 founding shareholders.
Back then, there were two or three other wholesalers in Culpeper and several others in Orange and Charlottesville. Merchant’s Grocery is the only wholesaler remaining from that group.
Smythers, whose father Elvin came to the business in 1973 and was named president in 1978, has seen the industry and the business evolve over the years. Merchant’s has been able to adjust to the changes, staying relevant and thriving.
“The one thing that is unique about us is that we’re a hybrid,” Smythers said. “We do a lot of food service with schools and we do a lot of convenience stores. We like to rely on is the personal touch,” Smythers said. “We try to develop personal relationships with our vendor partners and our employees.”
Known for their generosity, Merchant’s is always supporting community initiatives, being ardent supporters of the Piedmont Area Soap Box Derby and the Culpeper Senior Center, just to name a few.
Their employees are “hired to retire,” with many working more than 20 years at the location. Bruce Davis, vice president of sales, has been with Merchant’s for 34 years. On Saturday, he pointed over his shoulder to fellow employee Hugh Bayne who started a few weeks before he did.
“It’s a great atmosphere to work, I like what I do,” Davis, vice president of sales, said.
Throughout the years, Davis said he’s seen the competition and the customer base change. The business went from servicing Mom and Pop grocery stores – who handled hardware, guns, nails and ammunition – to more a food service model. Now they distribute to convenience stores and food services like schools. The Internet added another level of complexity, while also making it easier to connect to their customer base.
“It’s brought on more competition,” Smythers said. “Ordering online is everyone’s competition. But technology has helped us and helped us evolve as well.”
Merchant’s now does about $150 million in sales and added a 29,000 square foot expansion in 2012 that included a cold dock and freezer.
While growing, they haven’t changed their overall philosophy.
“It’s a culture,” Smythers said. “For us it’s about caring and being passionate about our employees and trying to help them succeed. My dad was probably one of a kind when it came to being compassionate about our people. It’s all about relationships.”
Ken Elders, Regional Business Developer of Pro Food Systems, distributes Champs Chicken and Cooper’s Express through Merchant’s.
“I’d say we deal with about 30 different convenience store distributors,” Elders said. “For me, I deal with about 15 different distributors and this is my favorite distributor. When you get a regional distributor like this, you’re not just another vendor, you’re another partner to them. When I call in, I know who I want to talk to. It’s a good partnership.”
Elders called Merchant’s “unique,” pointing out he only knows of one other wholesaler that has celebrated 100 years of operations.
“We are a very blessed company with many employees who have served our company for well over 30 years,” Smythers said. “Our success is attributed to their hard work and every person who has worked for us in the past and in the present has contributed to that.”