KEARNEY — If smiles are Hy-Vee’s trademark — “A helpful smile in every aisle” is its motto — look no further than Ron Svacina, the self-proclaimed “chicken man” who cuts up chicken, turns out shish kebabs and more in the meat counter of the store at 5212 Third Ave.
“I love customer interaction,” he said, grinning under his black hat. Retired after 33 years as a USDA meat inspector in Gibbon, he’s thrilled to be at Hy-Vee. “In that packing house, there weren’t a lot of customers to talk to. Here there are. This is a fun place to work,” he said.
That’s exactly the kind of image Hy-Vee sought when it opened its $16 million, 90,712-square-foot, open-around-the-clock store a year ago Wednesday. One year later, that positive image persists.
Customers like Tom Salem, recently here from Bentonville, Ark., to visit his mother Victoria, called the store “wonderful,” and so did Victoria. She’s a regular shopper who likes Hy-Vee’s variety of food and its spacious, airy design.
Such comments please Tony Taylor, the store manager, and Hy-Vee corporate officials in West Des Moines, Iowa. It was customer demand that prompted Hy-Vee to open here; Kearney residents, tired of driving to Hy-Vee’s Grand Island location, begged for a store in Kearney.
Hy-Vee responded with a supermarket that, along with food, has a pharmacy, a bakery, a floral department, 300 varieties of cheeses, a wine shop, prepared foods, a 32-table cafe and a 184-seat Marketplace Grill full-service restaurant. Its staff includes three chefs and a dietitian, Kaiti George.
It’s Nebraska’s ninth Hy-Vee, and its westernmost store in the state. Except for Grand Island, the others cluster around Omaha, Lincoln and cities close to the Missouri River. Hy-Vee has 236 stores in eight Midwestern states.
“We’ve fallen into a rhythm,” Taylor said. Hy-Vee, a private company, does not release financial information, but Taylor said the store is doing well. He has 136-full-time employees, only four fewer than he had at its opening, and about 400 part-time staff, including many students from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Numbers have shifted only slightly since the doors opened.
Taylor has learned a lot in the first year. The biggest-selling items are milk, bread, eggs and ground beef. Local wines and barbecue sauces are popular, too. The busiest days are Friday and Saturday, when shoppers come in from outside areas, some two and three hours away. They come from North Platte and northern Kansas and beyond. “We have a rural community traffic pattern. Sundays aren’t as big here as they are in Omaha and Lincoln,” Taylor said.
Some items, such as red cherry chips, are popular here but not at other Hy-Vee stores.
In Hy-Vee’s first year, customers have made more than 1,000 requests for items not currently on the shelves. “Some we were able to get, but sometimes the manufacturer has quit making an item. By and large, we get it if we are able to, and if not, I try to call everybody and explain,” Taylor said.
During the night, when both staff and customers are few, the store is cleaned and shelves are restocked. “In smaller communities, Hy-Vee will close at 10 or 11 p.m., but not here,” Taylor said, Off-hours crowds increase when shifts change at local factories, he said.
Taylor, 34, moved to Kearney in early 2014 from Red Oak, Iowa, but others in management are well-known retail veterans in Kearney. Manager of store operations is Bob Wilson, former owner of the now-closed Bob’s Super Store. His wife Patty works in the floral shop. Don Frank, former manager at Herberger’s at Hilltop Mall, runs Hy-Vee’s convenience store on Second Avenue.
The store is proud of its wine tastings and other events involving its chefs, but scheduling has been a problem, Taylor said. “We’d like to schedule a time during the week, but people are in and out then. On weekends, people are in less of a hurry. They have time to talk to chefs.”
There are three chefs on staff now, two fewer than when the store opened. Chefs are hard to find in less urban locations like Kearney, Taylor said. Those on staff are “constantly creating things” that are put out for shoppers to grab and go.
The company-run Marketplace Grill restaurant is doing “extremely well,” Taylor said. It’s one of just 40 restaurants among Hy-Vee’s supermarkets. The menu changes every few months to remain “fresh and new,” he said. The most popular items are simple foods like hamburgers and appetizers, but steaks and entrees rank high, too.
Each Hy-Vee determines how to display its merchandise, both food and non-edible items like flowers, pharmacy items, greeting cards, coolers, small hardware and cosmetics, Taylor said.
The Hy-Vee pharmacy is doing “absolutely phenomenal.” he said. The former U-Save Phamarcy moved into the store from 3811 Second Ave. several weeks after Hy-Vee opened. The supermarket also has dry cleaning services and wire service, plus, outside, a convenience store, car wash, gas station and a Caribou Coffee coffee shop.
It also has a Quick Care Clinic, a Kearney Clinic-run enterprise offering basic health care without an appointment for minor illnesses like sore throats and ear infections. Business there is picking up, Taylor said.
“Nothing here is underperforming,” he said. “Certain departments tend to grow in time, sometimes gradually,” he said. The floral shop, located close to the front doors, is finding its own rhythm as shoppers often grab a bouquet out of the large glass-doored cooler. The car wash is doing well, too, he said.
In the next six months, Hy-Vee will launch a delivery service. People will be able to order groceries on the Internet and either pick them up or have them delivered. Hy-Vee is redesigning its web site so it will be easy to navigate, Taylor said. Costs of that service are still being determined.
“This is what many people want these days — a grocery store brought to them,” Taylor said. Svacina, from the meat counter, said that, too. “Everyone today is buying prepared stuff. People want convenience.”
Taylor aims to provide that and more. “We’re just appreciative of the community and the support, and happy for the reception we’ve had,” he said.
“This is a great community. This is teamwork. If you surround yourself with great people, you can succeed.”