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An independent who used the pandemic to level up


The holes in the shelves were as big as the reach of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

James Leevers could feel them as he walked up and down the aisles a couple of years ago, and he certainly could see them. Supply chain issues during COVID left everybody’s hands tied, and Leevers Groceries was no exception. The shortages were worldwide.

“You never want holes like that on your shelves,” Leevers said. “But there was nothing you could do about it. That was the hardest part … not having what you needed.” 

Leevers, whose family owns eight supermarkets and three liquor stores in Minnesota and North Dakota, was determined to give his employees everything they needed during the hardest time in the company’s 85-year history. He used the global pandemic to get caught up with technology. He led the effort to use Teams and Zoom meetings. 

The communication helped Leevers and store managers at all the stores get together quickly to provide updates, which during COVID were always changing. Leevers also used the digital meetings to hook up with vendors as well. Supply chain issues often came with little answers, but if there was a solution, Zoom meetings kept Leevers on top of the situation. 

“We had the balls in the air and were going in that direction [with technology], but [the pandemic] really fast-forwarded things for us,” he said. “We can have meetings with all the stores, really quick ones, and everyone hears the same information at the same time.”

SpartanNash, the primary wholesaler to Leevers Groceries, helped substantially during the pandemic, and work was done with other wholesale and vendor partners to find replacement items, or ones that resembled the missing items. Leevers said paper and cleaning supplies were the hardest items to nail down, as was soup. 

Leevers Groceries already had fully functioning websites, but when the pandemic hit, it pushed the company to invest in online ordering. 

“We tried to tie in [online ordering] with items we could have on the shelf and advertise,” Leevers said. “We were just trying to do our best to relate to the customer and talk to the customer.”

Rolling out the online ordering platform went smoothly, but sales were larger than anticipated, so the stores had to “grow into that.” 

“Picking orders, setting them aside and figuring it all out … that was the hardest part,” said Leevers. 

Today, the biggest challenge is sustaining a strong customer base while grappling with inflation. Leevers Groceries has been finding an item every week that is appealing, that shows value, and highlighting it heavily in ads. 

Another focus has been on offering low-cost family meal ideas. 

As for the Teams and Zoom calls with employees, Leevers has been trying to take that next step. Quarterly meetings are being scheduled. Setting up employees for advancement is also a priority. Goals are established and a path is set. Leevers now has a director of operations who goes to each store and looks for that promising employee — one who has a future with the company. 

This feature is part of our 2023 “SN Independent Superstars” list: see more superstars here.



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