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One-Stop Shopping

Author: Karen Hart
May, 2011 Issue

Over multiple generations, the Gong family continues to provide its customers with quality, variety and service.

 

Ask the patrons of G&G Supermarket what keeps them coming back through the doors, and you’ll get a number of responses: friendly service, fresh produce, consistent prices, great selection of meat, best Asian food section, and the list goes on. These are some of the qualities that have kept the business goingæand growingæfor 48 years, and that have made G&G Supermarket a household name in Sonoma County.

The inspiration for G&G Supermarket took hold when Gee Kai Gong and Robert Gong first met. Though they shared the same last name, Gong and Gong weren’t related. The two men became acquainted when Robert began dating Gee’s daughter, Carrie. Gee owned a small grocery store in Stockton and Robert had a grocery store called Penny Fair Market in Cloverdale.

Gee had seven children and wanted to find a way to support his family and keep them all working together. Gong and Gong formed a partnership, and in 1963, they opened G&G Supermarket, a modest, 3,000-square-foot store at 901 W. College Ave. in Santa Rosa. Their initial goal was to offer customers quality products, variety and good service, and they hoped to draw them back again and again with the best meat and produce in town.

A growing family

The store was a family affair from the beginning with the help of their spouses, Fong and Carrie Gong, and Gee Kai Gong’s children Betty, Dick, Lee, Don and Dorothy. In the early days, G&G was the kind of place where customers were greeted by name, and the neighborhood children were sent to the store by their mothers to pick up milk or cans of tomato sauce. Groceries were put “on the tab,” and at the end of the week, fathers would come in to pay their bills.

As sales increased, G&G expanded and built a 35,000-square-foot supermarket to replace the original store. The store offered both service and self-service meats, and the produce department continued to expand.

During the early years of expansion, Robert Gong’s children—Carol, Connie, Jodie and Teejay Lowe—became more involved in the business.

“We started working in grade school,” says Carol Drake, now chief operating officer of G&G. The daughter of Robert Gong, her maternal grandfather is Gee Kai Gong. “We’d sort soda bottles in the warehouse and do our homework in the check stands while Mom checked groceries.”

During the spring of 1981, G&G Supermarket expanded once again to become one of the largest supermarkets in the state. The 84,000-square-foot store featured new departments including Chinese take out, and old-fashioned deli and cheese shop, a full-service floral department and a wine and spirits department. In addition, the produce and frozen food areas were also expanded. At that time, the Santa Rosa store was the largest independently owned grocery store west of the Mississippi. G&G was ahead of its time for the megastores.

“We had people all over the nation coming in to see our store,” says Teejay Lowe, now chief executive officer of G&G. “My father and his partners had a vision for family, community and customers. Back then, there was already a movement of people having less time. My father and his partners wanted to have a one-stop shop—a place where you could get meat, baked items and flowers. And they wanted to offer the best value to their customers.”

To keep pace with their customers’ different lifestyles and needs, G&G continued to expand and change over the years. In 1986, the produce department and Chinese take out expanded into an additional 12,000 square feet, increasing the size of the store to nearly 100,000 square feet, two times the size of a football field. In the late 1990s, the store expanded again. The health food department was increased to address customers’ dietary needs, and the delicatessen and cheese departments were also expanded. In November 2000, G&G opened its second location at the Petaluma Marketplace, a 55,000-square-foot store on Sonoma Mountain Parkway.

Though G&G Supermarket has expanded into two locations and undergone numerous changes over the years, the store is still committed to offering the best meat and produce. “Anyone can sell Cheerios and Tootsie Rolls,” says Lowe. “Meat and produce is what differentiates you from the competitors. We offer a wide selection of quality meats, and our produce is fresh. We have zucchini that still has the dew on it. They cut it at night and send it in first thing in the morning.”

Over the years, three different management teams have spearheaded the store, and G&G is still family run and operated. The owners/shareholders are Robert Gong, Betty Gong, Dick Gong, Lee Gong and Don Gong. The managing partners/board of directors are Betty Gong, Dick Gong, Lee Gong, Don Gong and Teejay Lowe. The current management team includes Teejay Lowe and Carol Drake, who serve as executive officers. Jason Gong, a cousin of Lowe and Drake, is director of store operations. Connie Petersen (Robert’s daughter) serves as director of human resources, and Robert’s daughter Jodie Lau is property manager. The family works with outside sources such as financial planners, business consultants, accountants and attorneys as needed.

“The strength of the company is our family. When we need to get the job done, everyone rolls up their sleeves,” says Lowe.

Some employees have worked with the Gong family for years. Ted Romero, produce manager at the Santa Rosa store, shopped at G&G as a child and has been working with the store for 34 years.

Today, there are a total of 15 family members actively involved in the store and as many as 350 employees working at G&G, depending on the season. Nevertheless, G&G still has that family-run, neighborhood feel. Lowe and Drake are often on the floor, greeting customers and being part of the community. “We have customers who’ve been coming here since we started the store in ’63,” says Drake. Many have watched the family members grow up. It’s not uncommon for customers to remind Lowe that they remember when he was born.

How does G&G separate family matters and business?

“There are two portions to our company. The business function and the family function,” says Lowe. “We have corporate functions and department head meetings. As for the family, we keep everyone informed whether they’re directly working in the business or not.” According to Lowe, the Gongs have family dinners every six months to update everyone on company business.

Open communication is key to their success, according to Lowe. “Department heads have full access to executive officers, division managers and directors. Our business changes daily and our product is perishable, so we need to address issues as quickly as possible,” says Lowe.

“A lot of people find a family-run business to be hard, but we leave our problems home. That’s the only way you can operate,” says Drake.

Changing lifestyles, changing needs

Keeping pace with the individual needs of its customers and making changes in the store accordingly is a priority for G&G Supermarket. “We see our consumers needs and lifestyles changing over a lifetime,” says Lowe. G&G caters to singles, couples with young children, large families and senior citizens. The store aims to provide a product for everyone. Green beans, for example, are offered in a variety of ways—in a selection of canned sizes, fresh, frozen or cooked and ready to eat from the deli.

G&G is also keeping pace with customers’ preferences. When it comes to beef, it offers a variety of product brands: conventional, organic, grass fed, free range and premium all natural. The store also offers a similar selection of chicken, and its seafood comes from all over the world. If the store doesn’t carry what you need, someone there will make sure you get it. According to Lowe, the most unusual request ever made by a customer was a goat’s head for an Italian dish, which the store was able to track down and provide from a local rancher.

Industry changes

Choice and variety is how the industry is changing, according to Lowe. “There used to be 1,000 choices and now there are 37,000 different SKUs in the store,” says Lowe. (SKU is short for stock-keeping unit and is more commonly recognized as the bar code on the product.)

The store caters to the special dietary needs of its customers, offering a wide selection of gluten-free, sugar-free and organic products. G&G is also keeping up with its customers’ interest in food. “Our customers are more educated about food,” says Drake. “There’s a lot of exposure [to food] these days, and people are looking for a wider range of products.” For the last 10 years, for example, the store has offered Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce. “When it first came out, no one knew what is was,” says Drake. “Customers didn’t know the product by name. They’d ask for the chili sauce with the rooster on it. Now it’s one of the top condiments sold in the store.” According to Lowe and Drake, both chefs and customers who like to cook and experiment with different products will ask for it.

“We’re matching our community,” says Drake. “Ten to 20 years ago, it would have been unheard of to provide products from other countries, but today, it’s not so uncommon.” As a result, the store offers Asian, Japanese, British, Hispanic and French food products, just to name a few.

According to Drake, local chefs often come to the store to purchase a product they’re unfamiliar with and then experiment with it. “California is the epicenter in the United States for fresh food and the culinary movement,” says Lowe. “And we’re on the cutting edge with it.”

A family’s passion

The Gong family is passionate about food and educating customers, and it shows in the services it offers and its plans for the store’s future. “When customers are spending $150 on prime rib, we want to make sure they know how to cook it,” says Lowe. The store often features free demonstrations to show customers what they might concoct with cheese, meat, sauces and olive oils.

In addition, local chef Josh Silvers (of Petite Syrah Bistro and Jackson's Bar and Oven) will show customers how to whip up gourmet meals in the Santa Rosa store’s full-service kitchen, the Ginger Grille, every other Saturday. Customers can learn how to make dishes such as fish with a beurre blanc sauce or braised beef short ribs with rustic horseradish mashed potatoes. They can watch the show live at the store or listen from home on KSRO’s (1350 AM) radio show.

G&G is also committed to educating customers in how to prepare healthy meals. Classes hosted by Weight Watchers and the Northern California Center for Well Being are regularly held at the Santa Rosa store. “Food isn’t just about entertainment and enjoyment. It’s part of a healthy lifestyle,” says Lowe. “The classes give us a way to educate and connect with our customers.” Some of the classes held include gluten-free cooking, baby food by hand and cooking light.

What the future has in store

What does the future hold for G&G Supermarket? “We plan to develop even more services and products,” says Lowe. “The grocery business is changing. You can’t just stock shelves. It has to be a place to learn about food and how to enjoy it.” And in keeping with Robert Gong and Gee Kai Gong’s original vision of being a one-stop shop, G&G plans to continue moving toward offering products and services that meet the many needs of its customers.

First on the list of improvements is improving the customer convenience of the payment center to make it easier for customers to pay their utility and cable bills at the store. Second, it plans to develop a catering company to help customers with all of their entertainment needs, from cooking to cleanup.

In an ongoing effort to keep up with the busy lifestyles of its customers, G&G is also planning a noodle bar that will offer noodles in various styles such as Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese. There will be a variety of noodles to choose from including buckwheat soba, wonton and flat rice noodles. Noodles will be served hot or cold with tossed vegetables and various seasonings.

In addition, G&G plans to add a home meal replacement program that focuses on healthy food options. The store intends to offer pre-cooked meals with items such as grilled salmon and polenta with seasonal vegetables in both single and family-size portions.

G&G also plans to continue to educate customers by developing podcast food shows, so customers can log onto their computers and learn how to dress a turkey or tie a pork loin roast. “We’d like to build a library of resources for people and make it available on our website,” says Lowe.

What’s more, G&G would like to expand two of its current programs. It wants to broadcast its radio program weekly to showcase what’s in season locally and how to use various food products. It also wants to expand upon the cooking classes, and plans are underway to develop a class that focuses on prenatal nutrition.

One new program the store recently began is its executive culinary education program for local businesses and corporations. Much like the "Iron Chef" competition on television, businesses can bring in executives to prepare meals as a team-building exercise. Participants shop for their own groceries, prepare and cook a meal, and give special attention to other details such as presentation and setting the table. According to Lowe, it’s a fun, team-building exercise that offers executives a different experience from golfing and wine tasting.

There are no current plans to add a new store at this time, but it’s always looking for a great location, according to Lowe. “The message to our customers is this: If you want a store in your neighborhood, let us know,” he says.

The secret to G&G’s success

Since the store’s modest beginnings, G&G is still going strong 48 years later. What’s the secret to its success? “Delivering value to our customers every day by offering a variety of quality products at a fair price,” says Lowe. “That’s our mission.”

 

 

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