As little girls growing up in Chagrin Falls, Kim and Kelsey Heinen went on family road trips that looked exactly like anyone else’s—except for their parents’ musical selection, or lack thereof.
Instead of popping in a CD or turning on the radio, their dad, Tom, spent car rides listening intently to recordings of comments, complaints, and compliments from customers who shopped at the family business, Heinen’s Grocery Store, which he manages with his twin brother, Jeff.
“I’ve listened to a lot of Heinen’s customer comments in my life,” jokes Kim, who is going through Heinen’s management training program. “He would literally listen to every single customer comment, and we would be like, ‘Dad, can we stop listening to these at some point?’”
That was in the 1990s, shortly after Tom and Jeff took over the family business after the death of their own father, Jack. In 1981, Jack and his brother had taken over the company from their own father, butcher-turned-entrepreneur Joe Heinen, who opened Cleveland’s first grocery store in 1929. Today, that grocery store has blossomed into a local chain that boasts 23 locations across Northeast Ohio and Chicago, employing about 3,500 employees.
Now celebrating its 90th year in the industry, Heinen’s is in its third generation of family leadership, with the fourth generation in training. This year, Consumer Reports named it one of the top three grocery stores in the country. But in an era of Instacart, Hello Fresh, Amazon Prime Pantry, community-supported agriculture deliveries, and myriad other ways for customers to get their groceries, modern-day supermarkets face serious challenges. So what, exactly, enables Heinen’s to continue to thrive and remain relevant after all these years?
Tom and Jeff say it’s as simple—and as complex—as offering the very best products in tandem with providing unprecedented levels of customer service.
“Supermarkets are never going to change,” Tom Heinen says. “The image of supermarkets is that you’re supposed to have a wide selection, and [as a customer], they’re supposed to have what I want, when I want it. We’ve got 90 years of the basic philosophy of selling high-quality food and giving good service, and I don’t think that’s changing.”
The company has, of course, changed in its 90 years, but its ceaseless commitment to customer service is one of many characteristics that has set it apart from its big-box competitors.
“Our grandfather knew that the only way you can differentiate yourself is the quality of your product and the service you give,” Tom says, “so everything he did was aimed at trying to make the customer experience better.”
Under Joe’s leadership, that meant instituting a store layout that was unusual for the time, with aisles that ran perpendicular to the checkout counter and a center aisle that split up the distance customers needed to walk in order to get to their desired section of the store.
He also built independent warehouses to enable the company to buy and distribute its own products, rather than relying on wholesalers, which means Heinen’s can choose exactly what products to carry and which vendors with whom to work.
That practice continues today, and the Heinen twins say it’s essentially unheard of among small grocery store chains with fewer than 80 stores.
“Our grandfather believed in being self-sufficient, and he understood that this would give him the latitude to purchase from who he wanted to purchase from,” Tom says. “The fact that we control our own destiny, in terms of the products we choose to carry and distribute, has been a huge benefit to us.”
After Joe’s death, his sons focused on what Tom calls “process efficiency,” streamlining the company’s practices to achieve ultimate effectiveness. “There was great synergy between the first and second generation,” Tom says, “carrying on [our grandfather’s] strong innovative emphasis but figuring out best practices and better ways to do things.”
Jeff and Tom, too, are now leaving their own indelible mark on the family business.
One of the most visible elements of their leadership is the opening of Heinen’s downtown Cleveland location, which was unveiled in 2015 in the former Cleveland Trust Rotunda Building and became the first grocery store in the city’s growing downtown district. With its dazzling interior——including a domed stained-glass ceiling, intricate hand-painted murals, and other stunning architectural details—Heinen’s 22nd store quickly made headlines and amassed a fan base.
But Tom and Jeff Heinen say the real impact they’ve had on the company is much more internal.
“Our biggest legacy is about helping employees understand their role in the business very early on—that they are leaders, they control their own destiny, and they control how they interact with customers,” Tom says. Under their leadership, Heinen’s has moved away from a “command and control” style of management in which corporate executives make all the big decisions, instead embracing a model that enables and empowers employees to be leaders in their own right.
That means, for example, that there’s no corporate blueprint for exactly how store associates should interact with customers or handle complaints and questions. Instead, Heinen’s encourages employees to troubleshoot and problem-solve in their own ways, which often means connecting customers with product experts or following up with them in a phone call.
“There are stories from our customers saying, ‘I can’t believe your dairy guy called me back like he said he would,’” Jeff says. “We’ve always believed that the only way we would get through the third generation and into the fourth is if we gave our people the skills and knowledge to be successful.”
The Heinen family’s longstanding belief in treating its associates and customers with respect, care, and professionalism has established the company into a family business in more ways than one: Heinen’s is family-owned and family-operated, yes, but it also employs generations of families and works with generationally owned vendors.
Take Rich Latine, who started working as a bagger at the Mentor store when he was 16 years old. Now a store manager at the Chardon location, he’s been a Heinen’s employee for 43 years—which still isn’t as long as father, Richard Latine, Sr., worked there. For 50 years, the elder Latine, once a policeman, worked one day a week directing parking lot traffic at the store’s University Heights location. He enjoyed his work so much that, upon his recommendation, his son started working at Heinen’s as a sophomore in high school—and he’s been with the company ever since.
The family’s allegiance to Heinen’s doesn’t stop there. Rich Latine is also the proud father of two Heinen’s employees: His daughter manages the Avon store, and his son is training to become a customer service manager.
“We all have a sense of pride about working in this generational family business,” Latine says. “We get to know the customers’ names and about their families, and that really is what creates loyalty. Customers love that—and all this is genuine.”
Longtime shopper Jen Rome can attest to the loyalty that the customer-associate relationship can build. Rome, who grew up going to Heinen’s with her family, now frequents the Willoughby Hills store to stock up on items like Bent Tree Coffee, Pope’s Kitchen Bloody Mary mix, Gerber Amish Farms chicken, and other favorites. But the best part, she says, is the service: Her 5-year-old son, Jeffrey, loves going grocery shopping with her so that he can talk to his favorite cashier, Miss Loretta.
“She lets him ride his Matchbox cars down the conveyor belt, and she asks him about school,” Rome says. “She is genuinely engaged with him and he with her, and it’s that kind of human connection that makes the difference for me.”
It also makes a big difference to vendors like Pierre’s Ice Cream, another local family owned business. Pierre’s, whose ice cream products are available in all Heinen’s stores, started its partnership with the grocery store chain in the late 1950s, and these days, it even produces Heinen’s private-label ice cream.
“Our businesses have been on parallel paths throughout the generations,” says Shelley Roth, president and chief executive of Pierre’s, whose father acquired the company in 1960. “Both companies share the same values, and that’s what has kept our relationship strong: It’s all about serving customers through high-quality products and outstanding service, while being focused on having a great team that cares and that does wonderful things to support those missions.”
Tom and Jeff are confident, too, that Heinen’s values will remain long after their time at the company’s helm. When it comes time for them to retire (though it doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon), their own children are poised to continue to lead the company in ways that honor the family’s legacy of quality and service while evolving, growing, and strengthening the brand, regardless of modern-day challenges.
“I hope we can leverage new technologies while still maintaining Heinen’s sense of service and continuing to provide a place for our associates to love coming to work every day,” Kim Heinen says. “That’s incredibly important, and it can never leave, in any generation of Heinen’s.”
She’s not the only fourth-generation Heinen who’s decided to go into the family business: Her sister, Kelsey, interns as a business and data management associate in Heinen’s corporate office while pursuing her master’s degree in business administration from Northwestern University. Their cousin—Jeff’s son, Jake—manages the Brecksville store.
Though the Heinen children have diverse interests and skill sets, they have one important thing in common: their pride in the company.
“Growing up in a family business, one of the things I took for granted is that you get to be proud of what your family does,” Kelsey says. “When I walk into a Heinen’s, I feel so proud of my family’s contribution to the store and the place the stores serve in the community.”
And although the younger Heinens are still in the leadership development phases of their careers with the company, they believe Heinen’s has a bright future ahead—and they’re looking forward to being a part of it.
“The industry is changing so quickly,” Kim says, “and the three of us are just really excited by that.”