Meet Jake Bender. Grocery is his family business.
“I’m actually the third generation, it’s in the blood,” Bender explains. “It’s a good business, people need food.”
Bender, 26, became store manager at Bender’s Foods in Fennimore last November. He was previously the assistant manager at Bender’s Foods in Bellevue, Iowa.
“I grew up working in the Bellevue store and learned a lot as assistant manager there,” Bender said.
Jake’s parents, Randy and Marta Bender, opened the first Bender’s Foods in Denver, Iowa, in 1986. The Bellevue store opened in 1990 and the fourth Bender’s Foods opened in Guttenburg, Iowa, in 2004.
Randy and Marta purchased the former Fennimore Foods in late 2002. The 12,000 sq. ft. store is roughly the same size as the Bellevue store.
Jake provided a helping hand with inventory when the Benders purchased Fennimore Foods. Now, only 10 years later, he is the store manager.
“I absolutely have a lot of pride in Jake and the thing I feel the best about is I let him decide,” Randy said. “We had a great discussion and kind of spelled out what things would be like, and he made the decision to come back.
“It’s exiting for us and it’s a real coup for Fennimore to get a bright young guy like that. He is committed to making that thing work and it’s a good fit for us and Fennimore.”
The Fennimore store has undergone what is known as a “reset” since Jake became store manager.
“We’ve tried to clean everything up,” Jake said. “We try to keep as much selection as we can, but also keep it easy to shop.”
Bender’s Foods switched to a new wholesaler, Kansas City’s Associated Wholesaler Grocers, last year.
“They are the largest co-op wholesaler in the country,” Jake said. “Their buying power has allowed us to drop prices on thousands of items and we’ll put our prices against anybody’s.”
Randy said the change to a new wholesaler was painful at first, but is now paying dividends.
“It was huge investment for our company to do it and we are seeing the trends getting a lot better and thanks to the people of Fennimore, that store is trending well,” Randy said.
The grocery business is not without its challenges. The number of independent stores in Iowa fell by 50 percent between 1995 and 2005.
“The big-box store effect has been devastating,” Jake said. “We have to keep very innovative and in tune with what the customer wants.
“We think we can offer the right price and give you an experience where you aren’t just a number.”
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Jake manages a staff of nearly 30 employees. He said he has been most proud of the team building that has taken place amongst the staff since November.
Employee Alex Burkhum has enjoyed Bender’s influence on the Fennimore store.
“[Jake] likes to change the store up and make it a little more open,” Burkhum said. “He’s also trying to get things at a decent price for everyone.
“He’s a good guy to work for.”
Before Jake took on the role of manager he took time to ask his father for advice.
“When we started in this business we bought our first store when I was 24 and [Jake] was one. He asked me, when you were my age, how did you make it,” Randy said. “I told him I did everything from stocking shelves to taking groceries to cars, and that you can’t get frustrated.
“That was pretty much the best advice I could tell him and he is taking that advice.”
Jake looks forward to opportunities that lie ahead as he continues in his role as store manager.
“I look forward to seeing what happens with the locally grown food movement,” he said. “My future is very much tied to farms and farming communities.
“We need to learn how to keep these businesses around for these communities and that is something I care about a lot.”
Randy has no doubt that with his son at the helm, the best is yet to come at Bender’s Foods in Fennimore.
“Fennimore has treated us very well,” Randy said. “We feel good about Fennimore and look forward to progressing there and getting bigger and better.
“[Jake] is one of the smartest guys I know and I feel very lucky to have him.”