The Crozet Great Valu, “Crozet’s hometown grocery since 1947,” has sold, ending an epoch in Crozet’s life, though, on the face of it, nothing much will change.
A partnership of Crozet Shopping Center owners Mark Green and Kurt Wassenaar and Raphael Strumlauf, the owner of Market Street Market in downtown Charlottesville, have formed Crozet Market LLC to take over the business from venerable Red Front Stores, Inc., which has provisioned generations of Crozetians and been a pillar of the community.
The name will not change and no changes in staff are expected, said Strumlauf, who seemed to crackle with excitement as he scrutinized the store’s arrangement, surveying the shelves with an expert eye as he walked the aisles Nov. 14, the day the deal closed.
“It’s been a whirlwind of figuring out how things are done,” said Strumlauf, who grew up in Albemarle and is familiar with Crozet. He and his father Steven started Market Street Market in 2009 in a 3,400-square-foot space on the corner of 4th and Market Street. “When you have little space you build up and try and get more things in. The market is centered around the deli. It’s like a Manhattan-style grocery. We have everything. The similarity is focusing on what the customers ask for, what they want.”
He’s already decided on some changes for the Great Valu. “We’re going to add a deli and a bakery and do more with produce. We’ll try fresh seafood and see if people are receptive. We’ll expand the organic section. To me this is a lot of space.” The Great Valu has 14,000 square feet total with 10,000 sq/ft in the selling area and the remainder in storerooms and work areas.
“What makes a store nice is customer service,” Strumlauf said. “Really knowing the customer. Nobody knows better what direction a store should go than the customers. I’m going to be spending a whole lot of time here through the holidays. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this. I don’t want to take away a single thing the store has. I want to remerchandise some things.” He gave as an example the possibility of moving some drink machines. “I don’t want to take a great store and get arrogant about changing things. I want the first thing people see when they walk in to be something fresh. It sets the whole tone for the store. That’s the direction. I want it to be a really nice place to shop. I want the people in Ivy to come here.
“It’s really cool. I used to come out to a childhood friend in Crozet. Wow. It’s turned into modern Crozet. We can keep all the things that are old Crozet and appeal as well to the new Crozet. I’m going to be incredibly active here. This is the greatest business; you get to sell people food.”
Strumlauf said he intends to hire a general manager for the store. He said he investigated other store possibilities but passed them up until he came upon Crozet Great Valu.
Red Front Stores shareholders include Jean and David Wagner, mother and son, V.L. James and Pete Maupin. Jean, the store’s manager, and V.L. James, who handles the meat department, will stay on until New Year’s Day to help with the transition. David and Pete, who manages the produce department, will stay on after that.
“Jean has been so good to work with and Mark and Kurt have been nice to work with, too. They are ethical people,” said Strumlauf. “I can promise you I’m going to put everything I have into it. It’s a great store in a great location. We’ll keep up every bit of the generosity that the store has shown to the community. You’ll still get your bags carried to the car for you.”
Jean Wagner, now 73, said she is glad to get the chance to retire. She’s been the general manager since 2002. “I had a health scare this year,” she said. “I’m fine. But I’ve earned my retirement.”
She said the shareholders had decided a year ago to pursue a sale. “The process of selling started before [the scare]. It was a stockholder decision. There has been a Wagner in the store since 1947, sometimes 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 of us working in the store, but it’s always been a corporation.
“I started in 1956 as a part-timer,” said James. “When I got out of high school, Jack Wagner [who founded the store] said to me, ‘Be here Monday’.” James became a meat cutter and ran the department. “We used to have home delivery. Every day. We were young and drove fast. If you saw a red truck coming on the road you got out of the way because it was a fire truck or the Red Front truck.” Jean explained that many housewives living in the mountains had no transportation to town.
The store affiliated with IGA (the Independent Grocers Association) in 1967 and became part of SuperValu stores in 1997. Since its founding, it has been open every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“I feel really good about this,” said Jean. “I feel really good about them. It’s going to be good.” She said the store has had inquiries from other possible buyers but none that she felt were right.
“We started thinking about selling about a year ago. We met with Mark and Kurt after they bought the shopping center in February. They knew we were considering it. We have the biggest piece of their property. They asked if we had thought about it and things escalated from there. They have been really good to work with. They think Crozet needs the store and they want it to grow. It’s all been up front all along. The new buyers are a good fit. They are going to do the best they can.
“I never wanted to be the manager,” she said, “but somebody had to do it. The store sort of runs itself,” she claimed as she personally undertook to ensure that Crozet Baptist Church will have the turkeys and hams it needs for its Thanksgiving Day community outreach dinner.
“We have key people who have been here a long time, Jeff Woods, Darren Dance, Vince Rodriguez, Danny Floyd, Fabienne Swanson, Pete. David started in here when he was 14. Customers like that, seeing the same faces when they come in. The bottom line is not always the most important thing; that’s the people in the business.
“I want the community to know how much we appreciate their continued support and how much we have enjoyed serving them. I hope they’ll continue to shop here. We’ve tried to give back.” That was an understatement of the store’s steady community philanthropy. The top door prize at the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department’s Awards Dinner a few nights before had been a hefty gift card from the store.