Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the winter issue of Business Leader, a quarterly magazine produced by the Leader-Telegram. To view that magazine and others online, go to leadertelegram.com/magazines.
STRUM — At a time when U.S. Department of Labor statistics show a third of new business fail within two years, half are gone within five years and 80 percent exit within two decades, Robbe’s Family Market just keeps defying the odds.
The family-owned store has been providing groceries to residents of Strum and the surrounding area for 120 years.
Somehow, in a lifespan extending from the horse-and-buggy days to an era when many mom-and-pop stores in small towns struggle to compete with online retailers and giant supermarkets in larger cities, Robbe’s keeps plugging along.
Company president Paul Gullicksrud said in a recent interview that not only is the store holding its own, but its seemingly old-fashioned formula for success has enabled it to show modest growth.
“It’s our customer service. That’s what we stress so much,” said Paul, who co-owns the store with his son, Brian. “We know the names of almost all of our customers.”
The close-knit relationship between the Trempealeau County village and its longtime grocer was on full display during a recent December afternoon, when every customer that checked out stopped to chat with employees, sometimes for several minutes, before exiting the store.
“That’s the biggest difference between us and the big boys: We know our customers,” said Brian, the company’s vice president.
Paul’s mom, Joyce Schmidt, is the oldest surviving link to store founder Henry Robbe, who launched the business in a storefront a block down the road in 1899.
Schmidt, Robbe’s great-niece, is also the longest-tenured employee at the store, with 84 years of seniority. She began at age 6 by selecting candy from the candy salesmen and now, at 90, is down to working one afternoon shift per week.
“I’ve worked in every capacity in this store,” said a grinning Schmidt, who ended her run as bookkeeper at age 85. “When I started, you weighed out everything because it all came in bulk.”
The store’s history is chronicled in a series of old photos hanging above the meat counter, including a black-and-white shot of the original two-story location with wagons and several local residents outside. Other shots depict building changes over the years.
The Gullicksruds are fully aware that many Wisconsin villages the size of Strum (population: 1,097) have lost their independent grocery stores, as they have either closed up shop or been taken over by larger chains.
Brian credited hard work, great employees, strong support from the growing local Hispanic population, customer loyalty by many Strum area residents and an emphasis on keeping goods “as competitively priced as they possibly can be” for the store’s continued success, even with several much larger competitors just a 20-minute drive away in Eau Claire.
Brian’s sister, Sara Meeks of Eau Claire, who works as a part-time graphic and web designer but also created a website and manages a Facebook page for Robbe’s, said community support remains the key ingredient necessary for the business’s survival.
“Running a small business is hard. Running a small business in a small town is even harder,” Meeks said. “Robbe’s wouldn’t still be here without the support of Strum and the surrounding communities. Strong customer service goes a long way. Great quality goes a long way. But, at the end of the day, it’s the people who shop the aisles that should be credited with keeping it going all these years.”
Longtime customer and Strum native Deb Moltzau Woodford still shops at Robbe’s on occasion even though she has lived in Eau Claire, the home of many much larger supermarkets, for more than 45 years.
“I come just for the meatball mix because it’s so good,” Moltzau Woodford said.
Indeed, Paul said, Robbe’s sends orders of its meatball mix — a special blend of ground beef, ground pork and spices — all over the country. The store’s full-service meat counter, including specialty items such as homemade beef sticks and lutefisk, remains its biggest draw.
Paul, 66, attended UW-Eau Claire after graduating from high school and then took a job in Albert Lea, Minn., before returning to the store where he started working at age 14 when there wasn’t enough work on the family’s farm to keep him and his five brothers busy. He bought Robbe’s more than 40 years ago from his grandfather Marshall Robbe, who somehow guided the store through the Great Depression years when few customers had money to pay their grocery bills.
“It was inevitable that I would come back. I just like it here,” Paul said, gazing down the aisles of the 9,500-square-foot building where Robbe’s has been located since 1979. It is only the store’s second location in its 12 decades of existence.
The story is similar for Brian, 42, who started stocking shelves at the store at about age 10. Though he worked in the grocery department at Super Target in Eau Claire for a couple years after college, the pull of the family business was too strong to resist and he too returned to work at Robbe’s.
“I grew up in it. I always knew it was going to be my destiny,” Brian said.
After all these years, Brian has no regrets, insisting, “I love the grocery business. I love coming to work.”
While some folks might think operating a family business that still has four generations of family members on the payroll sounds like too much togetherness, the Gullicksruds don’t see it that way.
They may occasionally have differences of opinion, but they work it out and never get nasty with each other, Brian said.
“We’ve always gotten along,” Paul said, stressing that their cooperative spirit likely has contributed to the store’s longevity. “We take a lot of pride in that. Not many businesses in this area, with the exception of a few farms, can say they are fifth generation.”
Even Meeks, who hasn’t lived in Strum for more than 16 years, is happy to play a small role in the family business by helping it keep up with the times through social media.
“I grew up at the store alongside my dad, my grandma and my brothers. I was playing hide-and-seek in the rolls of toilet paper before school and started filling the pop machine about the same time I was learning to ride a bike,” she said. “Robbe’s has never been just a business to us. It’s part of our family. I didn’t realize how special that was until many years later.”
The latest family members to start working at Robbe’s are Brian’s two oldest daughters, Skylar, 15, and Zoe, 17, who are following the family tradition while attending Eleva-Strum High School.
With their classmates accounting for several of the store’s 18 employees, Zoe called it a “pretty great work environment.”
Skylar added that working at the store offers a great opportunity to get to know more community residents and to see her own family members in an environment outside of home.
“I like it,” Skylar said. “I would rather have my dad as a boss than anyone.”
The teens, who both work as cashiers, said at this point they don’t envision taking over the store someday, but they didn’t close the door entirely, with Skylar shrugging her shoulders and saying, “You never know.”
So how long does Brian think Robbe’s will stay in business?
“As long as we can,” he said. “I don’t plan on going anywhere.”