You don’t see a lot of grocery businesses being bought by individuals without a private equity partner,” says Bill White, owner, president and CEO of Belle Foods. “It is usually the big companies buying the small ones, so it’s refreshing to see a different kind of business transaction, one that returns a business to 100 percent family ownership.” White is not new to the business; he has been CFO and vice president of different food retail stores for over 20 years.
At the beginning of 2012, White and his son Jeff bought 57 stores in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida from Southern Family Markets, operated under the Bruno name. White has been slowly changing the name to his own brand, Belle Foods.
The father-son team want to establish their own retail concept with wider aisles, more prepared-food options, over 100 additional items in the produce section and some unique and innovative offerings that will make Belle Foods a very different shopping experience from any other store in the area.
Belle Food’s slogan is “refreshingly simple,” and it is focused on making its stores convenient to get in and get out. “We know time is a precious commodity for our customers today,” White says, “and we are addressing that in all that we do.”
The first thing White wanted to address was customer service. “It takes years to get a customer, but you can lose them in seconds if you don’t treat them with respect and common courtesy,” he explains.
Belle Foods put together a customer service program for all employees, and started implementing the changes right away. “We have great people in our stores that have been with the company for 20 or 30 years. They have seen a lot of upheaval with different owners, so they are very excited to get the business back to its family business roots,” White says. “We’ve captured that excitement and trained them in what we want of our customer service, and the result has been great service.”
A program Belle Foods has begun implementing in its stores to make the shopping experience-stress free for its customers is its Belle Jr. program. Customers can leave their children, ages 3 to 10 years old at the supervised in-store play area. The employees in the children’s area are thoroughly screened and are CPR and first aid-certified.
For further safety, the child and corresponding adult receive matching bracelets that have to be checked at the time the young ones leave the play area. “We want to make sure people feel comfortable leaving their kids,” White says.
Belle Foods has developed a system that makes finding any product fast and easy.
“We want you to come into our store, find what you need very quickly and have a good experience,” he says.
The grocery store has organized its aisles not only in numbers – each side of an aisle is a separate aisle number – but in sub-sections within the aisles. So ketchup would be in aisle 6F, while mayonnaise would be in 6G, for example.
Another helpful system Belle Foods has in place is color-coded shelf tags, appropriately named “Simply Healthy.”
“It’s a system of tags organized by color to signify if an item is gluten-free, heart-healthy, sugar-free, all natural, or carb-free,” White says. “If you are a gluten-free shopper, for instance, you don’t have to be reading all the labels - when you see a burnt-orange tag, you know it’s a gluten-free item.”
The tags can combine up to four different attributes. “It is an easy way to integrate products into all the aisles and differentiate the products at the same time. The customers love that, and I don’t think that anybody else in the country has a system like ours.”
Belle Foods’ customer-centered attitude is literally on display in every store from banners hanging from the ceiling.
The company is the first in the country to offer specially designed shopping carts for people with physical disabilities. The seats face the person pushing the cart, and can accommodate adults and children. This allows parents and guardians of physically disabled children and adults to take them grocery shopping with them, without having to push a cart and a wheel chair at the same time.
Caroline carts are co-sponsored by Pepsi and Coke, depending on the store. “They saw what a great thing these carts are and they said they wanted to co-brand them,” White says.
White’s plan for Belle Foods is one of long-term growth. “We are taking a very long-term view of the business, and we are going to grow slowly and stay in business for a long time.”