Some family business owners have difficulty convincing their children to join them in the business – but not at Darrenkamp’s three grocery stores, which are headquartered in Lancaster, Pa. “I have three boys, my brother Larry has two boys and a girl, and my other brother Joe has a boy and a girl,” lists Vice President Dave Darrenkamp. “With a lot of them coming in, we’re looking at other stores right now.”
Darrenkamp’s has a long history in the area. “My great-grandfather had a horse and buggy going through the streets of Lancaster,” President Joe Darrenkamp relates. “Harry Darrenkamp was selling fish and produce off the back of a horse and buggy and wagon. He was a huckster. He did that since 1932.”
That was the year Harry and his wife set up shop in his home’s front room, which the family of seven boys and one girl called “the General Store.” In 1948, after Joe’s father, Jerry, and his uncle, Dick, returned from World War II, they built a new 3,000-square-foot store next to their home on Union Street and christened it George Darrenkamp and Sons.
Darrenkamp’s operated out of that single location until 1985, when it purchased the 15,000-square-foot Dagen’s Market in the Willow Street area of Lancaster County and named it Darrenkamp’s Country Market. Purchasing this store made the company’s plans to build a two-story store – then a $1 million project – on the site of their grandmother’s former home unnecessary.
In November 1997, the company opened the 35,000-square-foot Darrenkamp’s Mount Joy, Pa., store, and in September 1998, Darrenkamp’s purchased the 30,000-square-foot Willow Valley Market in Lancaster and renovated it into a 50,000-square-foot store with a food court that it calls Darrenkamp’s Market at Willow Valley. “We went from 50 employees to 250 to 500 within less than a year,” Darrenkamp notes.
The original store on Union Street was closed in 1999. “It was 50 years old and needed a lot of work,” Darrenkamp emphasizes. Without a loading dock, merchandise had to be unloaded on hand trucks and rolled down to the basement for storage, then brought back up for display.
“It was very labor-intensive,” he stresses.
In 2004, the company closed its country market, but due to customer demand, three years later it purchased a Redner’s Markets store that had closed in Elizabethtown, Pa., and spent approximately $3 million renovating it. Darrenkamp estimates the company’s three stores process approximately 42,000 transactions weekly.
Two of the three stores have pharmacies, but the Willow Valley store does not because of its agreement not to compete with a CVS Pharmacy at that location. “Our pharmacies do very well,” Darrenkamp declares. “Our pharmacists do a phenomenal job.”
Darrenkamp emphasizes that the company relies on Associated Wholesalers Inc. (AWI) to compete with a host of grocery store chains and independents in the area.
“We have the buying power of the big chains because of our combined volume,” Darrenkamp points out. “AWI supplies us with everything we need. Sixty percent of our product comes from there.” AWI provides direct store shipment.
Darrenkamp’s also uses approximately four produce suppliers and buys directly from a produce auction in Leola, Pa., Amish farmers in the area, neighboring farms and Florida growers.
Darrenkamp’s advertises on radio, television and in print media. The company also formed an ad group with several other AWI members. “We can advertise more economically and effectively and still have our own independence,” Darrenkamp maintains. “We have the best of both worlds. My brothers Larry, Dave and I can make a decision as far as what to put on sale or what hot bargain we can do. Whereas if we went through a corporation, it would take a week to make a decision, but we can do it in five minutes.”
Each brother has a specialty – Secretary/Treasurer Larry is into meat at the store, Vice President David is into marketing and Joe is the finance guy. “I missed a meeting one time, and I’ll never miss another one because they elected me president,” Joe jokes. “We’re all three co-owners. We all have our own niche, and they keep us separated – we each have our own store. We all work together and have a great relationship. I wouldn’t be in it if it weren’t for my brothers. Larry and David are partners, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Every store has a café. The brothers’ sister, Lynn Boyer, runs the one at the Mt. Joy store. “Everybody says Mom should have had more girls, because she’s a sweetheart,” Darrenkamp jokes. “She’s the smart one in the family – she married into money. Dad says you don’t marry for money – you hang around rich people until you fall in love.”
Joking aside, Darrenkamp points out that his brother-in-law has moved from banking to work with a nonprofit organization that is active in the Third World. That giveback ties in with Darrenkamp’s community involvement that was instilled in the family by their father. Darrenkamp estimates the company is involved with 25 to 30 local organizations including school bands, camps and football and baseball teams. “We do a lot of giving back,” he says.
It’s not just exemplary customer service and competitive prices that have kept customers coming back to Darrenkamp’s for 80 years, it also is the specialty items. Darrenkamp estimates the company sells a few thousand pounds of its exclusive chunky chicken salad weekly. “My brother Larry is the meathead in the family,” Darrenkamp jokes. “Our meat manager at Elizabethtown is always experimenting with new sausages.”
Among the 55 varieties of sausages that Darrenkamp’s offers are turkey, apple, horseradish, cheddar, sweet potato, onion, crab, blueberry and a tavern sausage that has beer in it.
“We like to have signature items you can only get at Darrenkamp’s,” Darrenkamp says.
“You can buy a can of beans anywhere, but it’s the people that make the difference in our store,” Dave Darrenkamp maintains. “Our slogan is, ‘We care.’” Adds Joe: “Our name is on the building, so we try to wow as many customers as we can. We don’t have self-checkout because it’s all about customer service. If there’s more than two in a line, we try to open up another line. We don’t like people to wait.”