Tony’s Foodland named Grocer of Year

By Wayne E. Rivet
Staff Writer

NAPLES — When news broke that Hannaford planned to build a grocery store in Bridgton, David Allenson made a big decision.

He looked at his Tony’s Foodland store, and figured he needed to expand to remain competitive. Some people thought Allenson was “nuts.” Others felt the

GROCER OF THE YEAR — Craig Burgess, president and chief executive officer of AG of Maine presents the “2010 Grocer of the Year” award to David R. Allenson, owner of The Umbrella Factory, doing business as Tony’s Foodland in Naples.

decision was a risky roll of the dice.

“Some said I had lost it or I was a genius,” Allenson recalled.

To David Allenson, the decision was a matter of survival.

“I felt the store was obsolete. So, in 2007, I put on my first addition to house my beverage and snack section. Then in 2008, my next addition was for my meat, deli, bakery and produce. I just want to be competitive. I think I did that,” he said. “A lot of times when a Hannaford arrives in a small area (the Bridgton store is roughly 35,000 square feet), an independent store will go out of business because they won’t add on and increase what they offer. I was happy with what I had here, but in order to compete, I knew I had to get better. I’ve worked too hard to quit and let the store go under. I’m a competitor.”

One of his customers’ biggest complaints was Tony’s Foodland lacked variety. Secondly, the store was too congested as Allenson tried to pack as much product as he could within the 5,000 square feet. He eliminated both of those problems by adding an additional 6,000 square feet.

“It’s now more user friendly to shop here,” he said. “Everyone knows that the most important person here is the customer. You need to listen. If you offer what they’re looking for, they will shop with you.”

Allenson’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed. He was recently named the 2010 Maine Grocers Association “Grocer of the Year.” Formed in 1935, the statewide organization consists of 500 members representing Maine’s retail and wholesale grocery industry — grocery stores and supermarkets to wholesalers, distributors and suppliers. The announcement was made at the Maine Food Means Business Summit held Oct. 28 at the Samoset in Rockland.

“It’s like winning the Nobel Peace Prize for the supermarket business,” Allenson said. “At first, I couldn’t believe it and asked Shelley (who notified him about the honor) to repeat it. I was just overwhelmed. I was shocked.”

Overwhelmed because Tony’s Foodland topped major supermarkets like Hannaford and Shaw’s as well as big distributors.

Tony’s Foodland was nominated for the award, and the Maine Grocers Association Board of Directors, consisting of 18 members, selected the top grocer for 2010.

“It’s unbelievable, really,” he said. “It says a lot about the store and the people that work here, including Mike (Fleck), who is my store manager and probably my best friend.”

Always looking for a fresh idea to add to his Naples store, Allenson and Fleck travel throughout the country, making visits to other grocery stores. Suppliers give him tips as to stores he should look at. The duo plans to take a trip to Ohio to see Jungle Jim’s sometime during the first of the year. “It’s a store within an amusement park, which is unbelievable,” Allenson said. “Somebody told me a long time ago that the best ideas are stolen.”

They see what works and what doesn’t. During one trip, Allenson stopped at The Umbrella Factory in South Kingston, R.I. This store featured antiques, crafts and even a small food section. David liked the slogan — “The Umbrella Factory… everything under one roof.” So, he brought it to Naples. His store has over 200 umbrellas hanging from the ceiling. He too offers a “little bit of everything” at Tony’s Foodland. But to make it possible for a one-stop shopping experience, David needed more floor space. Thus, he has expanded twice. One 3,000 square foot addition became his beverage center — a space Allenson is quite proud of because he designed it with employee input. When Aubuchon Hardware moved out of the shopping center for a new location along Route 302, Allenson saw a golden opportunity to again improve his grocery store. Another 3,000 square foot expansion allowed space to develop other ideas, including the new Crazy Stallion Pizza Pie Factory, which opened this past August, featuring brick oven pizza.

“If I didn’t make the move, I would have lost that chance. It’s worked out great,” he said.

David’s other major interest — when his mind isn’t focusing on the grocery enterprise — is antiques. An avid collector, David has splashes of that hobby strategically located throughout the store. There is an old barber’s chair in the corner at the main entrance. Near the Crazy Stallion Pizza Pie Factory, western gear, along with a stuffed mountain lion as well as scenes hand-painted by Tom Merriam, occupy the shelf space above coolers.

“A friend of mine had the lion and didn’t want it. I said I would find a place for it,” Allenson said. “We play old music — ’60s and ’70s — because that’s what I like. I see some people dancing in the aisles. It’s funny. We try to get to know everyone.”

Here, shopping is no longer a mundane task, but somewhat of an adventure. “I had one guy tell me that he comes to the store sometimes and doesn’t buy a thing,” Allenson said. “I asked him why he would do that. And he told me that he just wanted to see if I’ve brought something new in.”

For Allenson, he too enjoys his time at the store. He opens Tony’s Foodland every day, even though he lives 45 minutes away in West Paris (“It gives me plenty of time to think about new ideas,” he said. “A lot of times, I have to pull over to the side of the road and write the ideas down.”). Some days, he leaves early, while other days he leaves late. Allenson doesn’t wear a watch because he doesn’t worry about time.

“I enjoy what I do. It’s more of a hobby than work. I’ve done this (working at a supermarket) all of my life, since I was 15 years old. I’ve met so many people at the stores I’ve managed, and since I have been an owner here. I have a good time because of the customers and the people that work here. That’s why I won this award, because I have great employees,” he said. “I really like what I do. I was told a long time ago, ‘When it’s not fun anymore, it is time to get out.’ I’m still here and I am 66 years old. A lot of people ask me why I started my business at 60 years old. I don’t feel old. I’m maturing. I like meeting people. It’s challenging every day. I ask myself, ‘How can I do more?’ I am always looking at ways to be better — my customers deserve it.”

He feels it is important that the public, as well as his own employees, see him taking part in the daily operations. Because Allenson decided to keep the store’s name, Tony’s Foodland, when he purchased it, many folks who don’t know Allenson well, will say, “Hi Tony!” when they enter the store.

“I just say ‘Hi’ back to them,” he said. “People often ask me why I kept the name. It’s always been Tony’s Foodland. It’s what people know the store as.”

As Allenson walks through his store, one senses he is very proud of what he has accomplished in six years. But, for those who know him well, Allenson is always thinking, always contemplating his next move. And, one is in the works for January or February 2011.

Retirement is one idea David Allenson has yet to entertain.

“I want to be the oldest full-time employee in America at 105 as a greeter at Wal-Mart. I’ll probably last only an hour because I will tell people they should have shopped at Tony’s Foodland instead of coming here, so I won’t last long,” he said. “Truly, when I am asked when I am going to retire, I tell them I am not ready yet. I’ll know.”

David Allenson and his wife, Gail, reside in West Paris (they previously lived in Waterford) with their six horses, 11 dogs and one rabbit. Gail is a Maine Guide. She and David are avid antique collectors. Their son, Mark, resides in Rhode Island, and is an English teacher in Blackstone, Mass.

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