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Couple bags success working together

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Grocery Outlet store owners Debbee and Steve Tarr discuss plans for a display.

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

POSTED December 24, 2011 2:05 a.m.

Bookkeeper. Finance officer. Human resource director. Marketing. Floor supervisor. Stocking coordinator. Maintenance Customer service. Regulations compliance officer. Energy czar. Back-up clerk.

Spending a day with Debbee and Steve Tarr could be exhausting for most folks.

Those are just some of the duties the couple splits pursuing their passion – owning and running Manteca’s Grocery Outlet.

In a way, they are a throwback to the old Mom and Pop grocery stores of the 1960s. They are their own bosses. Their children work in the store as does their secondary family – a tight-knit group of nearly two dozen employees. Their children are Karissa, 21; Joey, 17; and Jake, 13.

“We’re in the store each day by 8 a.m.,” Debbee said. “We have a good crew so owe don’t have to come in as early as we once did.”

Back when they converted the shuttered Big Boy Market into a Grocery Outlet some 2 ½ years ago, a typical day went from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Steve started working from Grocery Outlet in 1992 and Debbee started in 2000. Their goal was to get the experience, training, and funds set aside to start their own store. Prior to opening in Manteca they owned stores in Yuba City and then Victorville.

They had a clear idea of what they were getting into due to the training Grocery Outlet required from potential owners before they can acquire their own store.

They also make watching costs a high priority. Such a strategy is critical to small businesses surviving.

You think you have a high PG&E bill

The monthly $10,000 PG&E bill to cover refrigeration and other costs was pared down by their decision to add numerous skylights to the store.

Not only did it create a more warm feeling to the once dreary store but Debbee calculated that it saves them $2,000 a year in electricity.

Working and living together 24/7 might pose problems for some couples but not for Debbee and Steve. They have a clear division of duties inside the store although Steve admits Debbee has to bring “more of it home with her” due to the never-ending paperwork whether it is accounting issues, payroll, or complying with a super-sized set of regulations compared to other states.

The biggest challenge that Steve said Grocery Outlet has had to combat over the years when trying to get customers in the door was shaking misconceptions.

“People think that it’s a dented canned goods and second hand store,” he said.

That’s not the case. They get fresh produce three times a week, fresh meat twice a week and fresh deli items twice a week. They stock some 4,300 grocery items.

What they sell primarily are grocery items that have been overproduced or else packaging that manufacturers have ended.

For example, cereal companies often develop special sized boxes of cereal for promotions for a set period of time.

When they switch or store sales don’t keep up with demand, the Grocery Outlet organization will buy the excessive production that is still well within its fresh dates and then distribute them to their stores.

It is what gives Grocery Outlet a niche in the market.

“The biggest thing that startles me when I go into another supermarket is the price of cereal,” Debbee said. “Our kids can polish off a box in no time at all.”

It isn’t unusual to find a brand name cereal in a package twice the size of what you’d fund in another supermarket but at half the price.

Grocery Outlet’s pricing is competitive enough that Debbee and Steve will spot comparison shoppers from other stores checking out their prices.

“They’re real easy to spot,” Debbee said.

At the same time, people sometimes believe they carry off-brands. That’s not the case. But they do carry kissing cousins of well-advertised labels. As an example, they carry Hellman’s mayonnaise which is how the same exact Best Foods mayonnaise is marketed east of the Rockies. The same is true of Eddy’s Ice Cream which is simply Dryer’s Ice Cream with a different packaging.

“It’ll often say right on the package of a product in smaller type that it is also sold under another name by the same manufacturer,” Debbee noted.

Steve loves stocking and interacting with customers. But if he had his druthers he’d spend much of his time educating people, about various wines.

“I love talking wine,” Steve said.

Steve also said the store is cleaned upwards of 10 times a day. Debbee noted that you need to do that when you open the doors to the public and they access everything right down to the bathrooms.

Want to start a business? Work hard, save your money

“People tell us all the time they can’t believe how clean (the store) is,” Debbee added.’

They have advice for others who may think of going into business for themselves.

“I would tell them to expected a lot of hard work,” Debbee said. “Save your money and work hard.”

Steve added that a business owner has to prepare for dips in revenue when things slow down making it important to build an operating cushion.

“You pay your employees first and then you pay yourself,’ Debbee said.

And – as Steve pointed out – be prepared for months when you can’t pay yourself.

You will also find non-food items marketed by “As Seen on TV” in the store.

And if you believe there isn’t staying power in brick-and-mortar family businesses, Grocery Outlet a few years back bought out the inventory of a hot shot Internet grocery business that went bankrupt - Webvan.

That doesn’t mean they eschew chronology and the Internet. They use it to further their business. Debbee, for example, keeps an active Facebook page of 275 followers who check it daily for specials.

But the Internet only gets you so far especially if you are a job applicant.

If you’re applying for a job simply emailing resumes or calling doesn’t do it,” Debbee said. “We need to see you in person to tell what kind of personality you have. You can teach people what needs to be done on the job but you can’t teach them personality.

— Dennis Wyatt

managing editor

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