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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Waiting for Huffman

    Columbus, Ohio's premier family-owned gourmet grocer is a small store packed with passion and humor -- and worth the trip.

    You need only telephone Huffman's Market and request directions to the store to realize that it's one of a kind. I discovered this first-hand during a recent visit to Columbus, Ohio.

    Driving south on High Street near the campus of my alma mater, Ohio State University, I knew that Huffman's was located somewhere in the vicinity, but I wasn't sure where. Using my Palm Treo, I called the store to get the address, and found myself giggling from the moment the following conversation began.

    "Good morning, thank you for calling Huffman's Market."

    "Yes, good morning," I responded. "I'm wondering if you could tell me exactly where you're located."

    "Well, right now, I'm sitting at my desk in my office chair," replied the phone greeter, who also happens to be the storeowner, Tim Huffman. Immediately after I stopped laughing, he gave me directions in MapQuest-like detail.

    Soon enough, I arrived at Huffman's Market, which is located in Upper Arlington, a picturesque and apparently affluent suburb located not far from the state capital. Two-story brownstones, towering oak trees, immaculate sidewalks and street signs, manicured lawns, coffee shops, cafes, and a tiny French bakery -- I passed them all en route to the 8,000-square-foot market, owned by Tim and his wife, Glenda, both Columbus natives.

    It all began when Tim Huffman was just 9 years old. That's when he took a job sorting soda pop and beer bottles at a small carryout store. At age 14 he was hired at a local Lawson's convenience store, where he worked until graduating from high school. He then joined A&P in Columbus.

    After serving with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam, Huffman was recruited by a local independent grocer operating in north Columbus, where he worked for 11 years.

    "In November 1987 Glenda and I purchased our store," recalls Huffman, now 59. "The location was once part of a striving family business that operated five stores in the Columbus area. When the company faced serious financial problems, [local wholesaler] Cardinal was forced to take over the business. Cardinal was anxious to unload an unprofitable store, and we felt strongly that we could make a go of it."

    Recognized today as a premier family-owned gourmet retailer in the crowded Columbus market, Huffman's Market appears to have smartly insulated itself from battling big boxes such as Giant Eagle, Meijer, Kroger, and Wal-Mart.

    "From the very beginning, we offered customers top-of-the-line meat and produce, and unique products," notes Glenda, Tim's wife of 37 years. "Plus we became very involved in the community. We focused on making Huffman's a fun place to shop.

    "Many of the products that we carry are exclusive to our store," she adds. "Over 100 grocery items carry the signature 'Huffman's Market' logo."

    Among those popular items is Glenda's Homemade Pasta Sauces, a line that's prominently displayed near the deli department's new six-foot frozen pasta case, which features more than 25 varieties of individually frozen raviolis.

    Of course, what goes better with good pasta than good wine? "During our remodel, which began this past March, and in which we invested approximately $175,000, we also expanded our beer and wine department, and now offer customers over 1,500 labels," reports Tim. "Each week, customers look forward to our Friday afternoon wine tastings in the department."

    Huffman's is the kind of operation that doesn't sit around waiting for its suppliers to decide what it should carry. Having worked in the food business all of his life, Huffman understands that wholesalers today must cater first to their own bottom lines, which makes it impossible for them to be "everything to everybody." As a result, he's convinced that independents that pride themselves on being unique must take the initiative, by continually sourcing products from many different vendors.

    Passion inside and out

    For Tim, what happens inside the store is just as important as what happens on the outside. Whether he's answering the telephone in his office, passing out patriotic popsicles along the Fourth of July parade route, dressing up as Santa Claus to entertain elementary school students, or sharing his ideas on how to operate a successful family-owned supermarket, the amount of passion he exhibits for the business could well be unprecedented.

    "From a community relations point of view, I've always focused on doing the unexpected," says Tim. "I attend as many events as possible at the local schools, and enjoy getting to know all the kids. I help out in a volunteer role, and often show up wearing some very strange costumes," he adds, laughing.

    In return, the kids often show up at the one and only Huffman's Market. "There's always a special event going on at the store," he notes. "For example, we just celebrated our annual Family Week, and we had a party in the parking lot, complete with a merry-go-round, bouncing machine, miniature train rides, an egg toss, and a ton of other fun activities."

    "You know you're on the right track with these types of events," adds Glenda, "when the governor's wife participates and invites elementary school kids to join her at the front of the store for an hour of story time."

    Regarding the next generation, which is highly involved in the market, Tim says, "I can see it in everything my kids do -- the business is in their hearts. That tells me that we'll be around for a long, long time."

    Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].

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