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Those in attendance at the Asparagus Club breakfast this past February during the NGA Show are a “Who’s Who” of leading independent grocers, wholesalers and suppliers, some of which are partners, and some of which are even competitors.
But during the breakfast, they were all equals, attending in support of a common goal: to further the industry by encouraging — via college scholarships — a constant stream of talented students looking to make a career in the grocery industry, particularly the independent retail and wholesale sector.
The Asparagus Club officially formed in 1909 when a group of retailers and wholesalers in the grocery industry got together. “They were like a bunch of asparagus tips bundled together for a common cause, which is how the name evolved,” explains Tom Wenning, NGA’s general counsel, who’s been involved with the Asparagus Club since the early 1980s. “The main function was to raise money for scholarships for college juniors, seniors and grad students whose majors in some way related to the industry. While meetings used to be stand-alone banquets, since the start of the NGA Show, they have been held as annual breakfasts.”
Each scholarship is $1,500 per semester (fall and spring only) for a maximum of four consecutive semesters. Recipients must maintain at least a 2.5 GPA per semester/quarter and full-time status to continue receiving the scholarship.
Since 1990, the Asparagus Club Scholarship Program has provided more than $850,000 in scholarships to students preparing for careers in the grocery industry. In just the past five years, the club has awarded $100,000-plus to young men and women who’ve set out on the road to careers in the industry.
Membership in the Asparagus Club is open to anyone who wants to participate, and members often span generations. Asparagus President Dan Shaul, who is also president of the Missouri Grocers Association, is a career member, as were his father and grandfather. “It’s a group that’s steeped in tradition, and its members are incredibly dedicated,” says Shaul. “It’s a breakfast meeting in Vegas, which makes it tough enough, but we also have members who participate in the walk/run early in the morning and still make it to this event to show their support.”
The Asparagus Club also hosts the Food Industry University Coalition Student Industry Case Competition, which provides students the opportunity to analyze a real-world contemporary retail business challenge. The solutions each team develops are judged by a panel of club members. “The number of participants grows each year, and it’s a great way to expose students to what the industry is all about,” notes Shaul. “They see that it’s much more than bagging and stocking shelves; it’s management, logistics, technology, health and wellness, pharmacies, marketing, and merchandising.”
The industry benefits from these presentations as well, since the students provide a fresh look at industry challenges, untethered by traditional methods of doing things.
“These students make up the grocery industry of tomorrow,” says Shaul. “Their unbridled enthusiasm for the industry means we have a great future ahead of us.”