An interview with Save-A-Lot’s Shawn Rinnier

While many residents are unhappy about losing a Fresh Grocer, and being told to look forward to the planned Save-A-Lot in Germantown, Shawn Rinnier thinks he can win his critics over if they could see his other Save-A-Lot stores.

Shawn Rinnier is a 33-year-old ball of energy who eats, drinks, thinks and lives the grocery business. Ask him about any of the 1000 new products he’s introduced to the Wayne Avenue Save-A-Lot in Germantown since he started running the business about two months ago and you won’t get a lecture – you’ll get something more like a sermon.

“This is a chicken breast but it’s like a pork chop,” he said, pulling a hunk of frozen pink meat from a hip-high freezer case. “I actually do this at the other stores and I bring them down on a frozen truck just to get them in here because it’s such a good item.”

Grocery in the blood

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Rinnier is running the 11,000 square foot Save-A-Lot until his own, new, larger store opens at Chelten Plaza. In that store, he will be able to operate a full meat and produce department drawing on a lifetime of this work in the Fresh Grocer.

He has been something of a protege of Pat Burns, the owner and president of the Fresh Grocer, ever since his father, Mike, who was Burns’ partner in the business, passed away suddenly in 2006.

Rinnier started in meats at the Fresh Grocer when he was a kid and worked his way up to operations manager for the company before he was 30. For the last year he has been operating technically on his own, running four Fresh-Grocer-ized Save-A-Lots in the Philadelphia area.

He takes his experience running fresh food departments and opens full meat and produce sections in the discount brand Save-A-Lot stores, and he uses his contacts from the Fresh Grocer to pull in specialty grocery items based on what customers want.

First impressions

If you were at the last Germantown Community Connection meeting about the Chelten Plaza development two weeks ago, this was not the Rinnier you saw. When it was his turn to speak to the angry crowd he froze just like that chicken chop.

Many of the more than 100 community members there opposed the Chelten Plaza development for a number of reasons, including not wanting a limited selection market like Save-A-Lot as their neighborhood grocery store.

At the meeting, there was a neighborhood survey done by the Greater Germantown Business Association that had 1000 signatures of people who opposed the development.

Rinnier had his own survey, of 2200 customers, many from lower Germantown and East Mt. Airy, who gave their names and addresses in support of opening a new Save-A-Lot on the site.

“But I didn’t want to get up at the meeting and say I’ve got 2200 signatures – that’s not my personality, I’m not like that,” said Rinnier.

And beyond that, he was intimidated by the scene.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Rinnier said. “Pat [Burns] said there’s gonna be a lot of people there, and I’m thinking ‘how many people can there be? 15, 20, 30?’ But then I got there and I sat down and I’m like, ‘Oh my God that’s a lot of people.’”

When it came his turn to address the crowd he said two sentences and clammed up for the rest of the meeting.

“I didn’t really know what they wanted to hear – I just drew a blank,” he said. “I’m embarrassed.”

Making up for the past

But it gets worse because Rinnier knows as well as anyone he has to make up for the past with Germantown. He was the Fresh Grocer director of operations in 2006 when Burns and the elder Rinnier bought the property at Chelten and Pulaski and opened a Fresh Grocer there.

Even though he was not stationed at that store, technically it was Rinnier who was in charge of it, along with the other stores in the Fresh Grocer network. He knows it never became what it should have been. He knew it before, and he heard about it again at the meeting.

“You know one woman she came up and said ‘I shopped at the Fresh Grocer,’ and she said ‘I got bad milk there, and they treated me bad,’” he recalled from the meeting. “It was like putting a dagger in my heart, honestly. It really hurt my feelings. That’s not what I want to do.”

On why things went so bad at that location while other Fresh Grocer projects seemed to be flourishing, Rinnier offered several explanations, but none seemed to put the man fully at ease.

Rinnier was working at all the locations, running all the stores. At the same time there were construction projects at the Wilmington Store, the Shoppes at La Salle was underway, Temple’s Progress Plaza was underway, and just months after acquiring the Chelten location Rinnier’s father passed away from a sudden heart attack. He doesn’t want that to be the excuse but it was part of everything that seemed to be happening at once.

“Honestly I don’t think we paid attention to the store as much as we should have and I think if we did we probably would have done better,” he said.

They made other mistakes too. He had the wrong management staff at the store and he probably kept the payroll too lean, which he’s sure had an impact on customer service.

“I don’t know what to really say, it was a tough few years,” he said.

Getting on track

That was the only time Rinnier slowed down in the long tour of the Wayne Avenue Save-A-Lot. The rest of the time he was buzzing up and down the isles pointing out the different products he was so excited to cary because few, if any, Save-A-Lot stores have them.

“Actually today I brought Lehigh Valley in through my contacts,” he said, passing the dairy case. “So I have a Save-A-Lot version brand and I have the Lehigh Valley version brand – you give the customers a choice.”

He points out Tropicana, Pepsi and Schweppes, Carvel Ice Cream cakes, Dan’s Soda from Lansdale, Tasykake, Entenmenn’s and Moran’s Bread – all not typical Save-A-Lot items. But he thinks having them in the store makes all the difference in the world.

“Like Moran’s Bread – its a potato bread. It’s kind of silly to the normal person,” he said. “No other Save-A-Lot has Moran’s Bread, and the customers love it.”

And within seconds we were halfway up the next isle showing a shopper where the graham cracker crumb pie crusts were located.

Rinnier calls the busy dance he does around the store part of his “home field advantage.” The deal he’s made with Save-A-Lot is all his own, he essentially does custom versions of the store and he believes he can use what he’s learned growing up in the business to make the new Save-A-Lot at Chelten Plaza one that even his harshest critics could come to like.

To that end, he’s thinking about bringing an organic products line into the store through his Fresh Grocer contacts, he said, and he thinks of new ideas all the time.

“I’m so excited to open this store,” he said. “After that meeting, I’ve been thinking about it every single day – I want to impress these people. I want to impress the customer that’s been shopping here first, because they deserve a new facility, they deserve more variety, and they deserve to shop in a bigger store with fresh meat. And the other customers – they should fall in line.”

Rinnier said he knows people are angry about how the development has gone so far, but he says he’s sure things can turn around if the community gives him a chance.

“If you knew us, how we are, how hard we work, you’d be sold,” he said.

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