Brown County IGA is still in transition and open to suggestions.

That was the general message new store manager Wayne Koester conveyed when discussing what has and has not changed at the store since it was acquired by Houchens Food Group of Bowling Green, Kentucky, on July 9.

The Brown County IGA joined 100 other IGAs the company operates around the Midwest, including 16 in Indiana.

The store had been locally and family-owned for 40 years.

“They’re supposed to be a part of their community. That’s part of being an IGA,” Houchens spokesman Brandon Jones said Oct. 6, speaking about the role he envisions for the Brown County IGA.

Koester was an assistant manager at this store or 17 years before becoming store manager. As an example, he said Brown County IGA recently participated in a cookout to raise money for Mother’s Cupboard.

“Through the community, we raised over $400 in four hours for them,” Koester said. “Just selling hot dogs and chips and stuff like that.”

The biggest limiting factor on such activities is getting the store transitioned to a new supply chain and other challenges of the switch to the Houchens support system, Koester said.

“A lot of it has to do with being able to hold down the fort and then venturing out into the community,” he said. “You have to get your house right before you can venture off, but we’re making baby steps.”

So far, a few of the things customers missed in the first weeks after the change in ownership have returned, such as the Oliver’s Barbecue food truck in the parking lot and the option for customers to support local nonprofits by designating where they want their “points” to go to at checkout.

In addition, the Boy Scouts will be in the front of the store selling popcorn through October and into November, Koester said.

“We’re not turning anyone away,” he said. “We’re actually, I feel, opening up the doors more to the community.”

On the shelves

Houchens uses a different supply chain than what was available to the Brown County IGA in the past, Jones said. However, that does not mean the company can’t get many of the items that used to be sold there.“If we can get it back in, we get it back in,” Koester said.But not everything comes from that new supply chain, said Paul James, a Houchens special projects specialist who assists with getting new stores set up. For instance, the produce and wine are from the same suppliers, he said.

So, if people notice something missing from either of those areas, the store should have no problem restocking it, he said.

Locally produced items should not be a problem either, as long as the vendor is interested in working with this store and meets all legal requirements to sell that product to the public, James said.

Houchens leaves the decision up to Koester about selling locally produced products.

“No vendor has been turned away, as far as I know,” Koester said.

But there are some things the store won’t be able to get back, James said. An example is the Culinary Circle pizzas, which were a special product only available from the warehouse IGA formerly used.

“If we could get them, we’d have them out there,” James said.

But, like the rest of the selection, the store is open to suggestions from the public about products they would like to see in their place, he said.

In response to customer comments about a lack of selection, James went to a shelf in the pasta aisle and pointed to a place where one brand was taking shelf space intended for two brands.

If there is empty shelf space, it has to be filled with something, he said. At the moment, the store is waiting for some producers of high-end, specialty brands to get their product list to the warehouse that Houchens works with.

Once those products are available to be stocked again, they will be on the shelves, he said.

The meat of it

When The Brown County Democrat asked what questions customers had for the new store owners through social media, some mentioned noticing new faces in the store and missing old ones, particularly in the meat department.Houchens management read those comments.While some employees chose not to continue through the transition, the store has not had any major turnover in staff, Koester said. He estimated that 90 percent or more of the core staff stayed on through the change in ownership. Anyone who left did so by choice, he said.

If there are new faces, it is mostly due to the store hiring more employees than it had previously, not simply replacing those who left.

The store does deal with turnover with part-time employees, which is common to area businesses, Koester said.

Not all of the items that were once available in the deli — such as individually wrapped meatloaf — are currently available, Koester said. But that does not mean they won’t be in the future, especially if people ask for them to come back.

And while the the display and arrangement of the meat section has changed, Koester said he believes the current selection actually has more variety than it did in the past.

Play it again

Other customers mentioned hearing different music in the store.The music service the store uses is different, Koester said. But the provider does offer a variety of stations, and if customers don’t like what they are hearing, Houchens can help the store find something more to customers’ liking, Jones said.That attitude goes for the store in general, Jones said.

He said the main thing Houchens wants to do is make sure the store suits the needs and preferences of local customers.

Management also wants to increase the variety of products available, and sometime next year, the store will go through a reset to try to make it easier for people to find related items, he said.

“It is a common practice in lots of stores,” Jones said. “Just making things better for the customers, as far as selection, placement, and just making it, overall, an easier experience.

As an example of the kinds of things he thinks the store does right, he mentioned the milk cooler near the checkout, so customers don’t have to go all the way to the back just for that one item.

“I think it’s a nice touch that you guys have here,” he said. “So, I think you guys already have a good grasp.”

Keeping it close

“We have a lot more freedom at this store than what you think we do,” Koester said. “The store is ours to do — if we wanted to make a display of something, we don’t have to wait for permission to make a display.“If we wanted to have a cookout tomorrow because someone in the community’s house burnt down, I don’t have to jump through hoops and get that done. I can just do it,” he said.There is no one looking over his shoulder, telling him what to do with the store, Koester said.

“At the beginning, we had a lot of support, a lot of help, because everything was new,” he said. “It’s weaning off a bit, and we’re starting to do things on our own.

“And I think it was somewhat tough for us to, ‘Really? We can do that?’ — You know what I mean? Because you think that you’re totally switching up,” he said.

In the beginning, that might have led to some confusion when customers asked employees what they could expect, Koester said.

“We’re learning, basically. I can honestly say I’ve never been told ‘No’ about anything I’ve brought to the table,” he said.

“I think if we can just reiterate to people that if there are certain products, certain things you’re looking for, let us know,” Jones said. “We cannot get back to what they were accustomed to without their feedback.”

Make a suggestion

A large suggestion box has been placed inside the entrance of the Brown County IGA. Houchens welcomes customers to put comments in the box or to talk to customer service about what they’d like the new owners and management to do differently.

Author photo
Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.