*This story first appeared in The Budget’s June 20,2018, Local Edition.
By Stacey Carmany
In 1918, Lewis Baker opened up a small grocery store on the corner of Miller and Jewett avenues in the bustling railroad town of Dennison, Ohio.
That store would not stand the test of time but Lew’s legacy continues to live on a century later through the Baker’s IGA chain of local, family-owned grocery stores operated by third-generation owners Gary and Terrie Baker.
These days, the husband and wife team owns a total of five local supermarkets, with stores in Newcomerstown, Sugarcreek, Scio, Coshocton and Mt. Vernon, but for the Baker family, the journey to success hasn’t exactly been linear.
While his grandfather’s original store initially did quite well in Dennison, it was not immune to the effects of the railroad strikes that began in the area in the early 1920s.
“When they went on strike, and all these guys didn’t have any money and, of course, it was also in the middle of the Depression on top of that,” Gary Baker shared. “That was kind of the icing on the cake for the little store in Dennison.”
During the 1930s, Lew made the hard decision to give up on his dream and close down the corner store, but that would not be the end of the family business.
In 1946, after returning from the war, Lew’s son Eddie Baker partnered with his father to purchase Bendure’s Market in Freeport and reopened the store under the name of Baker’s Market.
“I think any type of a retail establishment he would have been satisfied with but he knew a little bit about the food business, and he knew his father knew a lot about the food business from being in it before, so that just seemed to make a lot of sense,” Gary Baker said of his father, who served as a Master Sergeant and Top Turret Gunner on a B-17 before being captured by the enemy and imprisoned for 20 months in a German POW camp.
A few years after opening the store in Freeport, the family bought out a competitor across the street, tore down the building and constructed a brand new store on the same site to house the new and improved Baker’s Thrifty Market. “In those days, we called it a supermarket, but it wasn’t a supermarket by today’s standards but it was quite large for that time, and especially for a town as small as Freeport,” Gary Baker shared.
It was at that store that Gary would make his debut in the family business beginning at age 11, at a time when the price of bread was 10 cents a loaf, cake mix was four for $1 and a six-pack of 7-Up was 29 cents. “That’s where I grew up in the business, and that’s where my dad worked most of the years of his adult life,” Gary Baker said.
More than two decades later, in 1974, Gary made the jump from employee to part-owner when his parents purchased a former Kroger in Newcomerstown and reopened it as their second Baker’s location.
In 1978, Gary married his wife, Terrie, who would go on to serve as his business partner for the next 40 years.
In 1983, when Gary’s father officially retired from the family business at age 63, the couple took over ownership of his store in Freeport. During the same year, they also expanded into a third location after purchasing a former grocery store in Scio.
From there, the family business continued to grow. In 1987, the couple opened a fourth store in Coshocton. In 2004, they bought the Thompson’s IGA in Newcomerstown and relocated their existing store into the larger building.
Gary Baker noted that the purchase also marked a significant milestone for the family business in that it allowed the couple to convert all their locations into IGAs. “Once we bought them, that opened the door for us to become not only IGA in Newcomerstown but then we could expand that and become IGA in the other locations,” he explained. “We had no interest in becoming IGA in one or two or three stores if we couldn’t be IGA in all the stores. It doesn’t make sense to try to operate that way because you’ d be buying different products and buying from a different wholesale supplier. It just wouldn’t create a lot of efficiencies.”
Receiving the IGA designation was an important step for the business for several reasons, according to Baker “I think the first thing it really did for us is it gave us a better identity with the customers as to who we were,” he said. “It was just that many, many customers were affiliated at some point in their lives with what an IGA store was, and usually the connection would be, ‘Gee, I used to shop at an IGA,’ or, ‘My mom would shop at an IGA when I was a kid.’”
In addition, Baker said the move also allowed the stores to begin carrying IGA brand products and gave the company access to IGAs online employee training programs. “Through the IGA Institute, they have 300 or 400 different training courses that you can do online,” he said.
After becoming a member of the IGA network of independently-owned grocers, the couple would go on to close their store in Freeport before opening their store in Sugarcreek in 2012 and Mt. Vernon in 2015.
And while the family-owned business has grown and changed significantly over the last 100 years, along with the needs and expectations of customers, the business philosophy is still much the same as it was when Gary’s grandfather opened that first store in Dennison.
“Service, I think, for us is our number one priority with our customers, knowing folks’ names, recognizing people when they come in,” he shared. “[It’s] having that type of a connection with your customers that when they come in it’s not just somebody walking up and down the aisle buying groceries.”
Freshness is also key, according to Baker, particularly in the meat, dairy, produce, deli and bakery departments. “It’s just keeping a good reputation on those items because they are fresh,” he explained. “Occasionally, that means being out of things from time to time. That’s not your goal but your goal is to keep it fresh.”
Maintaining fair prices is another important aspect of the business, according to Baker. “We don’t stand there and tell people we guarantee the absolute lowest price. Those days are gone for the independent supermarket, but we want to put ourselves in the position of having a fair price for people that we can generate some type of a profit, that we can pay our people a decent living wage and operate our business and be there to serve them another day,” he explained.
In addition, Baker said the company also encourages its employees and managers to be involved in their local communities. “Within each town, our managers will take the lead on things either of interest to them or things they feel are important for the community,” he explained. “I don’t tell the guys or gals what to do. I just ask them to try and be involved and have their finger on the pulse of the community and what they can do to move the community forward.”
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the family-owned business, the Bakers have put together a display of historical photos housed in the bed of a 1953 Chevy pickup truck. “We wanted something nostalgic that kind of represented the good old days,” Baker explained. “It seems like old automobiles and old pickup trucks have a place in a lot of people’s hearts, especially people my age or older.”
The display made its debut at the Newcomerstown location in November and will continue to rotate among the other stores for the remainder of the year.
The display can currently be viewed at the Sugarcreek location, although Baker noted that it is missing one of its key elements. “I can’t put the truck inside the store in Sugarcreek, so it loses a bit in the translation because the truck is what gets everybody’s attention,” he said.
As for what it takes for a business to reach its 100th anniversary, Baker said it definitely takes some luck as well as a willingness by each generation to pick up where the previous generation left off. “Many businesses have a difficult time making it to the third generation, and there’s only a handful of businesses who make it to the fourth generation,” he explained.
Although the company has been able to retain family ownership for three generations, Baker said there probably won’t be a fourth. “Both our kids are in their 30s, so I don’t envision either one of them at this point in their lives making a change and getting involved in the grocery business,” he said. “I think the three generations is probably where it ends for a family standpoint, but that doesn’t mean that other associates who have worked with us for many years can’t continue to be involved and operate the business for many years to come.”