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Nugget Markets: The Gold Standard

hile much of the value is in our vision, it’s the execution and differentiation where we truly excel.” This is what Adam Bazarnik, 25-year Nugget Markets veteran and Director of Produce, tells me as we look back at the quiet beginnings of this Woodland, California-born retail chain. Nestled in the high-end, culturally diverse neighborhoods of the Sacramento Valley and Marin County, Nugget Markets has differentiated itself within the state’s competitive retail space by its artisan chic décor, inviting staff, revolving program of unique marketing initiatives, and an eclectic portfolio of local and international food and drink.

 This year, the company is celebrating its 90th anniversary, a testament to its roots and the ability to retain a loyal customer base in an increasingly competitive retail terrain.

As one of Northern California’s premier natural and organic grocers, the company’s footprint sits just at 16 stores, and Nugget Markets is far from resting. With the goal of sharing the Nugget Markets experience across a more diverse customer base, the company has brought new demographics and regions into its fold in recent years with the acquisitions of Sonoma Market and Glen Ellen Village Market in California’s wine country, as well as three Paradise Foods located in Marin County.

Roseville, California“While we are looking to grow, we also have the desire to bring like-minded companies into our company with the same family-owned and operated core values that are at the heart of Nugget Markets and the Stille founding family,” Kate Stille, Director of Marketing, tells me as we speak about the company’s expanding reach. “It’s more than a financial decision. The growth is about taking the authentic experience we have created with Nugget Markets, and making it more accessible to Northern California communities.”

 In addition to the company’s external growth, is the internal. For the eleventh consecutive year, Nugget Markets has been named in Fortune’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in the nation. Released in March of 2016, the list revealed that the company moved up to number 13 from number 26 during the previous year, inciting a wave of individuals looking to enter its ranks.

“Nugget Markets is a family-run company, and that thread and philosophy is woven throughout all of our operations and speaks to our positive, fun, and passionate culture,” Adam tells me. “People should be celebrated, and that goes for our associates and our guests.”

If you want further evidence of this thriving Nugget Markets culture and its 90 years of success, here is one: The company has never had a single layoff. With industry-leading wages and healthcare benefits, snowmobiling, and whitewater rafting trips, celebrations and multiple annual parties at stores, Nugget Markets shouldn’t just be recognized for its well-cultivated culture, but as a blueprint for how a culture should be built. And Adam can attest to all of that.

"In so many ways, produce is its own packaging, naturally unique and differentiated." -Adam Bazarnik

From Adam’s early beginnings as a Courtesy Clerk at the company’s Davis, California store, to his current position as Director of Produce, he has cut his teeth in the industry at all levels of the business.

“I have always gravitated towards fresh produce. In so many ways, produce is its own packaging, naturally unique and differentiated,” Adam says. “Nothing says fresh like the produce department. This has always been a part of Nugget Markets’ business model and one that I have been graciously a part of.”

As with most produce aficionados, Adam is also always looking to the trends. Nugget Markets brings in new and exciting produce items in answer to the latest and greatest evolutions in taste, but the company also looks to those longer-term investments and game changers; specifically for Nugget Markets, it is the push into organics. 

“In some areas we are trying to be more and more organic, and in others, less conventional,” Adam mentions, also communicating that you have to be careful with changing the business model. “There are so many different types of buying behaviors within our established retail regions and even within the stores themselves. There are certain areas where folks will buy all organic, other locations where they are 50/50, and some places draw a majority of consumers who want conventional.”

Essentially, the ratio is ever-changing, but never a toss-up. Adapting to changing consumer values, economic stability or instability, access to information, and education all play a role in the decision-making process for today’s food lovers, and definitely those building their carts with fresh produce top-of-mind.

For this reason, produce and other food selections are tailored to each location. Nugget Markets has been able to observe which categories and items have had the most growth and success across organic or conventional, and can then make targeted and informed decisions about its programs.

 When it comes to Nugget Markets’ vision for produce, the company also has a powerhouse player on its side. Nor-Cal Produce takes lead as the purchasing arm for all of Nugget’s fruit and vegetable needs. Besides a handful of growers that have been partners of Nugget Markets for years, Nor-Cal has been the leading source for all things fresh produce with the retailer since Adam joined the company.

Sacramento, California

“Our relationship with Nor-Cal is more of a partnership. It’s almost as if we are one in the same. Because we have grown together over the years, our businesses, values, and goals align. It is about doing business right,” Adam says as we pull back the layers on what makes this partnership tick. “When we need to execute ideas that are unique in the marketplace, the Nor-Cal team is the one making it happen for us. Whether it is building crazy sales, procuring items that their team is not used to sourcing, or shifting the focus of our items—we are there to make their business better and they are here to do the same for us.”

The Nor-Cal partnership has long been a part of Nugget Markets produce-forward strategy, allowing them both to adapt to the changing nature of the consumer grocery basket.

Another way that Nugget Markets accesses these changing consumer demands is through the guest service aspect, which is a top priority in any department.

“We are always trying to connect with our guests to discover what they want, how we can better respond to what they are looking for, and where their priorities lie in the produce department. We have a genuine desire and passion to get to know those individuals who walk through our doors,” Adam says. “That level of care builds a different type of atmosphere, one that thrives on building better relationships. And the great part about this environment is that it is always authentic.”

That authenticity extends beyond the budding relationships and growing consumer loyalty, all the way to the design and ambience of the store itself. Across Nugget Markets’ 16 locations, including Fork Lift by Nugget Markets and Food 4 Less in Woodland, California, you can walk through entryways draped with handcrafted ornamental ivy vines, lavish Grecian sculptures with stone detailed to perfection, and a warm palette of fall colors. Or, enter another locale just 10 miles away that brightens the block with vibrantly painted sunflowers that have so much dimension you feel like the petals are extending out, right from the soft blue sky of its background. In 2000, the company began to shift to a more modern and abundant European-style market design which has given the team the chance to channel their environmental and food artistry.

Each store design is the brainchild of multiple individuals at Nugget Markets, from the in-house “Get ‘er done boys” that work internally on everything from the craftsmanship, fixtures and textures, and the stain of the floor, to plumbing, and even welding.

“They’ve even created our own design for the wet racks, the farmers’ market-style bins, and the way we create a path for the consumers that is based on participating in the experience,” Kate adds.

"Nugget Markets has transformed its traditional format to a European market-style aesthetic." - Adam Bazarnik

And, as we all love to see, the produce department is as far from a mere afterthought as it can be–pulling fresh produce offerings and bins of flowers out onto the sidewalk. In many ways, it is a stage. For an experience that is as lush and as warm as Nugget Markets, it is never a place that you simply pass through.

“We have always had a store focus on produce,” Kate shares. “My husband, Eric’s, grandfather would drive his truck all over the west looking for great produce items. When we began to grow our store count, that philosophy followed, and incorporated more fresh items, from prepared foods to local cheese and artisan breads. We also have a pretty substantial chef staff at each store now, constantly building recipes and kitchen offerings from fresh ingredients.”

Nugget Markets’ story started in September of 1926, when the father and son team, William and Mack Stille, opened the original Nugget Markets in Woodland, California. Located at 416 Main Street, the store was 18’ × 35’ and cost $1,300 to get started, including fixtures and stock.

“The company actually acquired its name by way of a contest,” Kate says. “An 8-year-old girl came up with the name because of the gold-painted pillars at the front of the store, which reminded her of the California Gold Rush ‘nuggets.’”

Nugget Markets eventually partnered with United Produce, the second largest nonprofit co-op wholesale house in the nation, to expand its selection.

Over the following decades, Nugget Markets welcomed more into its program: a deli, prepared foods, a coffee bar, and a meat market selling prime meat with much of it raised by Mack and Will. They added a smokehouse and meat locker, wine stewards, and cheese specialists—all under the watchful and caring eyes of the Stille family.

During this time, Gene Stille took over as President of the company in 1960. Under Gene’s leadership, Nugget Markets established itself as the Every Day Low Price Leader in the region. During this decade, technology enabled efficiencies like patented mechanical case cutters, and electronic meat scales allowed independents to streamline operations and remain competitive with large national chains.

It wasn’t until 1982 that Eric Stille, current CEO and President and grandson and great grandson of the founders, joined the company as a buyer. In 1990, Eric was officially named CEO and President as Gene Stille became Chairman of the Board of Directors.

It has been under Eric’s leadership that Nugget Markets has transformed from its traditional format to a European market-style aesthetic, and grown the retailer into the unique presence it is today. A disruptor to say the least.

“When it comes down to our recipe for success, there are so many different elements that contribute to the whole, but truly, it’s about the great service we offer our guests and the family we continue to build from within,” Adam tells me as he reflects on his quarter century with Nugget Markets and the 90 years of growth being celebrated this year. “We want to be a home outside of your home. That idea may sound simple, but it is rare in today’s market.”

And rare it is. With the competitive Sacramento retail space saturated with retail giants such as Costco, Target, Walmart, Whole Foods, and Safeway, many may ask how the 16-store, independent grocer keeps its head above water.

Well, it appears, the proof is in the pudding… and the produce.