Small town service, staff to remain same in Red Apple sale

David Peck

A three-generation family grocery store in Lovell has been sold, but the new owners promise the same kind of hometown quality customers are used to.

The Red Apple Supermarket was sold this week to Darin and Valerie Hill of Ridgway, Colo., owners of 11 grocery stores and three Ace Hardware stores in the Rocky Mountain region. Hill Grocery Co. will maintain the Red Apple name in Lovell, though the store is changing from supplier Associated Food Stores to Associated Wholesale Grocers with trucks now arriving from a warehouse in Norfolk, Neb. Associated Food Stores trucks came to Lovell from Ogden, Utah.

The company has also purchased Mr. D’s in Powell.

The Negro family has operated grocery stores in Lovell for more than 70 years, with the original store, Big Horn Market, operated by Charles C. “Chuck” and Ardella Negro starting in the late 1940s with Konrad Keller. Son Bob and wife Carol Negro got involved when Bob returned from service in the U.S. Navy in 1954.

The store moved to the current location of the Bible Church and operated as Big Horn IGA for many years, moving across the street to the current location in 1977 with a 12,000-square-foot store, expanding to 18,455 square feet in 1983 and then 30,000 square feet in the 1990s. The store changed its supplier to Associated Food Stores in 1990 and became the Red Apple Supermarket. Bob and Carol’s son Mitch and wife Annette later purchased the store after Mitch had joined his grandfather and father in the business to make it a three-generation store in 1982. Mitch and Annette have made several store upgrades in recent years.

Hill Grocery Co. was founded in Ridgway, Colo., 21 years ago, Darin Hill said in an interview Monday. Both Darin and Valerie Hill grew up in Casper, and Darin said he started as a bagger at a store in his hometown in 1980.

After attending Casper College for a spell, he said he “stuck with the grocery business” and worked for stores in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

“We left Texas in ’99 and, with three daughters, wanted to be closer to home and buy a store in Wyoming, but there were no stores for sale in Wyoming,” Hill said. “Wyoming is so small (in population) it was tough to find anything, so we ended up settling for Colorado. Casper was about seven hours away, so it worked out good for us.”

Hill said he got to know the owners of Mr. D’s in Lander and Powell over the years and looked into purchasing the Powell store. But along with that came the desire to purchase a companion store.

“A big part of grocery expense is freight, getting the groceries here,” Hill said, so to make an operation efficient, a second store was needed. He looked into buying another store in the area and reached out to Mitch Negro. A deal was reached, employees were informed three weeks ago and the official closing took place Monday morning.

Hill said he has built his company with small-town grocery stores in places like Lovell, finding a niche in markets “where the big folks, the larger chains, aren’t coming.” Ridway, for instance, home of Hill’s first independent store and where the Hill family resides, is a town of about 800 people, he noted.

Few changes

The “store brand” or private label at Red Apple has moved in recent years from Western Family to Food Club and will now be Best Choice. Hill said the products will be similar because there has been a lot of consolidation in the market for private label suppliers and “pretty much one company makes it for everybody.”

Personnel will remain the same, he said, with Mike Allred as store and produce manager, Christy Tharp meat manager, Jeff Hackworth grocery manager, Tami Parish bakery and deli manager, Tonya Willis liquor store manager, Margo Doerr variety store manager, Jackie Williams dairy manager and Vicki Mulholland frozen foods manager.

“This store is a beautiful store, well maintained with a great staff,” Hill said. “I think it has a great sense of the community. It’s not a store you look at and say ‘well, we’ve got to change this or do that.’ I keep reassuring people, we have to change point of sale (cash register system) and change suppliers, but short of that we’re not changing anything else.”

He added that the pricing structure will be very similar, noting, “As we looked at it here, they had a great thing going, and it’s going very well. That’s why we’re not looking to really change anything. We just want to keep everything going as they had it. If folks have ideas we’ll look at it.”

Asked what Hill Grocery stores are known for, Hill replied, “Customer service, friendliness, quality, cleanliness and variety.

“That’s another thing that impressed me about Red Apple,” he said. “It’s very, very clean. You can walk around in any department and everyone does a nice job keeping things clean.”

Hill said the store will offer “some fun stuff,” noting that he works with a crafts supplier not too far from the grocery warehouse in Norfolk that will allow the store to rebuild the crafts department of the variety store. He also hopes to respond to community needs, perhaps bringing back underwear and socks or other items identified as a need.

Looking at the store, he called the customer service “impressive as heck,” noting that the Red Apple is “kind of old school” with its helpful carryout service.

“It’s nice to see they do that automatically here,” he said. “They don’t shove you the cart or make you bag your own groceries.

“Everyone keeps asking if we’ll change things, and I say don’t change anything. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Just keep it going the way it has been and we’ll evaluate.”

Asked if he has a message to Red Apple customers, Hill replied, “We’re excited to be here and want to serve the community like it has been, take care of them and offer them a good store to shop.”