Q&A with Ron McIntire, of Super 1 Foods
~September 24th, 2020
Ron McIntire was 33 years old when he started his first grocery store, Ron’s Thrift Store, in Hayden. He and his wife, Joanne, had just moved to the small North Idaho town, which had a population of less than 800 at the time.
Ron’s Thrift Store grew and was renamed Ron’s Harvest Foods. When McIntire opened the first Coeur d’Alene store, the fledgling chain was named Manito Super 1 Foods Inc. From 2000 to 2006, McIntire also served as mayor of Hayden. Now 83 years old, McIntire owns 15 stores in Idaho and Montana, which he runs with the help of four of his seven children.
The Journal sat down with McIntire in his office overlooking the main floor of the Hayden grocery store to talk about how the industry has changed, what keeps customers loyal to Super 1, and why McIntire has chosen to focus on building stores in small towns.
Journal: What has it been like to be in the grocery industry lately?
McIntire: The grocery business is good because everybody has to eat. You just make it as convenient and fresh and good as you can make it, and hope you get the product to fill the shelves.
The first product we were out of was toilet paper. We have that now. We have everything but canning supplies. This is canning country up here in our part of the western world. We just can’t get any. We haven’t had anything for probably 1 1/2 months. It’s the first time it’s ever happened that I can remember. I don’t know whether people are canning more or if they’re not manufacturing enough.
What’s been the biggest challenge in your career?
One of the biggest challenges I remember was in the ‘70s when the interest rate skyrocketed. You couldn’t pay off a loan fast enough to keep ahead of it. Your payments increased because the interest was higher. Those were challenging times.
How has the grocery industry changed in the past few decades?
Everything now is electronic. In our newest store that just opened this year in Oldtown, everything is LED and energy efficient. Each individual section of every case has its own little electronic package. When I first started, we had compressors for the refrigerators. They were big electric motors with fan belts, and now everything is enclosed tight and much safer. Everything is so different, but it’s good because it’s brighter and easier to clean.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is the employees. Grocery stores employ people, and you can only automate so much. We have two stores with self-serve check stands. Some customers love them. The majority of them don’t use them. It gets to be a little challenging sometimes to hire people because there’s quite a competition for workers nowadays.
What changes to the grocery store industry have you seen in the Coeur d’Alene area?
Competition. Lots of competition. Everybody (who operates) nationally and regionally is represented here in the Coeur d’Alene area. There are very few independents now. We have tried hard to fit in. We try to keep a family operation.
We may not be doing as much as some of the bigger chains, but we have enough to take care of us and our employees.
How has online shopping changed things for you, and when did Super 1 Foods start offering that service?
By the first of this year, we had it going. We’ve been doing it at every one of our stores. The majority of the people who we find are shopping online are either older people who don’t want to go out and take a chance of catching something, or the younger people who have babies at home.
We’ve done okay with it. I’d much rather have the customer come in the store and see what we have. That way you sell more impulse items. But when they have it on the computer ... you put in their order what they ordered. There’s not much chance for them to buy a pack of gum or something.
It’s good for us, because we get to study a little better what people want and what they need. If they want a certain brand of paper towel, we may not have Bounty towels. We ask them if they want substitutes, and if they don’t want a substitute, we don’t put anything in.
Why did you start the original grocery store, Ron’s Thrift Store?
I had always worked for other people. I just wanted to try it and see if I was as good as I thought I was. Sometimes, people get a shock doing that, but it didn’t surprise me too much. I just did the same thing I did for everybody else … and we graduated from one store to another. As this town grew, we tried to grow with it.
How have you kept shoppers loyal to Super 1 Foods? What makes people keep coming back?
We try hard to be friendly and nice. You always want to try to have the best product available, whether it’s produce, or meat, bakery, or deli. You work hard to see that you have the best show possible.
Price is important too. You can’t give everything away, but people care about pricing and that’s something we’ve always tried to do, especially since we’ve gone from Ron’s Thrift to Harvest Foods to Super 1. We try to be very competitive price-wise. My son takes care of that. He follows pricing closely to make sure we’re getting our share of bargains when they come up.
We try to hire the best people we can. We have people who have been with us for 43, 44 years out of the 50 I’ve been here. They’re good folks. Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue to do that. We work closely with the high schools all around us and try to hire the best kids we can and bring them up. We have college kids who go to college, come back at Christmas and Thanksgiving to work while we let somebody else go on vacation. It’s worked well for us. We try to take really good care of them.
You recently opened a store in Oldtown, Idaho. Do you have plans to keep expanding?
We’ll probably start another new one next year. We’re already working on that one to see where and when. We try to keep moving. It takes at least a full year to get a store built. If we start next year, it’ll be 2022 before it opens. It takes about that long to find a location, get all the permits, get the contract, and then to fill it with groceries. This last one was the biggest challenge we’ve had, because of the shortages of product. It took a full 3 1/2 months to get the store full enough to be able to open. We’re hoping the next one will be easier and faster, but you never know.
Minimum wage has been in the spotlight in the past couple of years. What are your thoughts on efforts to raise the minimum wage?
Idaho’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. But you can’t hire anyone for that. That’s a fallacy. They can leave minimum wage at whatever level they want, but you have to pay a prevailing wage to get anybody to work for you. It’s $13.50 per hour minimum in Washington. We always hope not to have to start at $13, but we do start at anywhere from $10 to $13 per hour.
Washington’s minimum wage is going to be $15 in one more year. Idaho hasn’t moved. But it doesn’t make any difference. You have to have the prevailing wage. Whatever the guy down the street is offering, you’ve got to do pretty close to it or you don’t get any help. If you want the real good employees, you have to pay more. That’s just the way it is. It doesn’t matter what the state minimums are.
Is it challenging to be in a border town that competes with Washington for workers?
We’ve never worried about it. We had stores in Washington, in Spokane, and we sold them all because I wanted to focus on the smaller towns in Idaho and Montana. We’re right across the river from Washington at Oldtown. But we’re able to hire enough people to sufficiently take care of what we need.
You say you’re focusing more on small towns. Why is that?
You can be friendlier. We’ve had much better luck hiring in smaller towns.
Some of our smaller towns now are not smaller towns anymore. When we opened our first store in Coeur d’Alene in ‘85, the population was probably about 15,000, and it’s now close to 50,000. The population of Post Falls has probably tripled since we opened that store. It’s fun to see all the new people moving in. If we didn’t have the new move-ins, with all the new competition, we’d probably be starving to death.
If you weren’t in the grocery industry, what would you want to be doing instead?
I’d be a cowboy. I’d like to ride out in Montana or Wyoming on the range. It’s a lousy way to make a living, but it would be fun. It’s just something different. That’s one I always think about. It would be fun to be independent and just have to worry about one horse. But I like to be around people, and a cowboy wouldn’t be around people, so I probably wouldn’t like it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.