Tuesday December 12, 2017

Mirabito Family Back in Grocery Business

Longtime area grocers back in action with new Save-A-Lot store in Fulton
By Lou Sorendo

    It’s old school with a touch of today.


    The Mirabitos are a household name in the local grocery business.


    The family owned and operated the Hannibal Village Market IGA for more than 25 years before selling it to Tops Friendly Markets in 2016.


    Now, Jim Mirabito, his wife Cindy and daughter Whitney are the new owners of Save-A-Lot, 364 W. First St. S., Fulton.


    Jim is a third-generation grocer, as his grandfather opened a market on Erie Street in Fulton in 1928. Since then, several members of the Mirabito family have owned and operated grocery stores in the area.


    The Mirabitos took over a Save-A-Lot store that had existed for 15 years prior to the acquisition.


    John Hart of Canandaigua was the former owner and also operated several locations in central and eastern New York.


    “He was just looking to retire and get out of the business. This opportunity became available to us and we couldn’t pass it up,” Whitney said.


    “I was actually living in Rochester and working at a law firm,” Whitney said. “After my parents sold the [Hannibal] store, my dad and I talked. He had mentioned that he was approached by Save-A-Lot and asked if he was interested in taking over the [Fulton-based] store,” she said.


    Whitney graduated with a business degree from St. John Fisher College in Rochester.


    “It’s something that I like doing. I always enjoyed working in the store, and my father wasn’t ready to retire himself,” she added. “He wanted to stay in the business, so when the opportunity arose, we decided to jump on it.”


    “I just felt I was too young and still had things I wanted to do,” Jim said. “This was an opportunity to try a different business model.”


    Noting the Hannibal Village Market was a conventional supermarket with a more extensive variety, Save-A-Lot is “more of a slimmed down version.”


    “We carry 90 to 95 percent of what a person needs. We just don’t have as many different flavors, varieties and brands of each item,” he said.


    He noted prices are significantly lower due to less overhead cost.


    “I thought this was a way to try a different career choice without leaving the food industry,” he said.


    “We’ve been around the area for many years. It just looked like the right thing to do at the time,” he added. “The store was available. It had been run down, so we came in, cleaned and put a fresh coat of paint on it, and fixed all the refrigeration problems. We’re doing well.”


    The Mirabitos are independent licensed retailers.


    Approximately 70 percent of Save-A-Lot stores are owned and operated by independent licensed retailers. 


    Renovation phase — After purchasing the facility outright in March of 2017, the family started extensive renovations for about a three-month period.


    They celebrated their grand reopening on the weekend prior to the Fourth of July in 2017.


    “There is no set price on what it costs to get into this business,” Whitney said. “It depends on what you can work out with the previous owner.”


    Whitney did not disclose what it cost to acquire the business and renovate it. “It was a major investment for us. We did invest quite a bit and are still investing to make renovations to the store,” she said.


    Thanks to extensive refurbishing, Save-A-Lot features a completely upgraded and expanded produce department with a new display case; new flooring and LED lighting; an expanded dairy section and a fresh merchandising approach for groceries.


    Save-A-Lot employs a limited assortment concept in its production selection that results in an advertised 40 percent price reduction compared to conventional supermarkets.


    “At traditional, conventional stores, quite a few of their products are going to be national brand items, like Tide and Bounty,” she said. “With this store, we don’t purchase national brands, and right there is a big cost cut.”


    Save-A-Lot has its own private labels, and everything in the store is a Save-A-Lot product.


    “I enjoy just being here and speaking with customers and seeing people coming in every day. You develop friendships and relationships with them. That is really something that I definitely treasure,” Whitney said.


    Fulton features a highly competitive grocery sector, with Price Chopper and Tops Friendly Markets fighting for market share. Aldi is expected to open in Fulton in mid-December.


    Whitney addressed what it is going to take for the store to be successful.


    “Honestly, I think it’s going back to basics and being able to provide excellent customer service, great quality products at low prices,” she said. “That is our mission and our employees have done a great job at delivering it.”

    The store employs 26 workers.


    Under dad’s guidance — For Jim Mirabito, what is going to lead to success for the store is getting the word out regarding pricing.


    “Our prices are 40 to 50 percent less than traditional supermarkets, and the quality is second to none,” he said.


    Save-A-Lot was launched in 1977.


    “They did not carry national brands. They developed all their own brands with quality and taste very similar to national brands at half the price,” Mirabito said.


    He said it’s challenging nowadays to select the proper mode of communicating messages to the consumer.


    “Thirty years ago, everybody got The Palladium-Times and The Valley News on Thursdays for the ads,” said Mirabito, noting the landscape has changed today with online marketing avenues.


    Mirabito noted Save-A-Lot has a sophisticated marketing department that shared vital demographics that indicated the opportunity had great potential.


    “We also tested against Aldi knowing that they will be here. We compared locations, pricing strategies” and target audiences, he said.


    Mirabito noted Aldi is “moving much more into the organic lines” and has a more limited selection than Save-A-Lot.


    “We have fresh meat and our produce is refrigerated. There are differences,” he said.


    Mirabito said a regular customer baked a pie recently and brought it in for Whitney.


    “That’s not what you get at an Aldi,” he said. “Nobody is going to make a pie and bring it in. That’s the connection.”


    For Jim, the added bonus of returning to the grocery business is doing it alongside his daughter.


    “I guess as a parent you want your kids to succeed, and I want her to be more successful than I’ve been,” Mirabito said.


    He noted he gains gratification from having the opportunity to work with her and share some of the insight he has gained over the years.


    “She’s going to make her own mistakes, and we’re going to let her do that. She has got to learn on her own,” he said.


    Mirabito said he is looking forward to giving her direction and being there to support her during rough times.


    “It’s just like teaching your kid how to ride a bicycle,” he said. “You put on the training wheels, take them off, hold the back seat, and pretty soon they are flying off on their own and still think you’re there. But you’re not. It’s very similar,” he said.


    “She always wants to learn and is always looking for a new, better angle. She always is trying to improve herself,” Mirabito said of his daughter. “She’s also kind to customers and employees and treats people the way she wants to be treated. She’s just a good kid.”


    For Jim, the grocery business is in his DNA.


    “You get to see and meet more people in a single day here than you do in just about any other business. People come in with questions and problems. We offer solutions,” Mirabito said.


    “We talk about share of stomach. Everybody who walks through the door is wondering what he or she is going to have for dinner that night. We help them find a solution,” he said.


    Mirabito noted when he is out in public in Fulton, “people recognize me and they always speak. You walk down a street somewhere else — Syracuse, Rochester or wherever — you are focused on where you are going and they are focused on where they are going.”


    Jeremy Burns is the general manager at the refurbished store and heads up the merchandising effort.


    He said communication and treating customers with respect will be keys to the business’ success.


    “Customers will always come back to a friendly face,” he said.

Oswego County Business Magazine
Issue 160

Issue 160
February/March 2019

Cover Story


James Weatherup

On The Job

What Are Your Goals for 2019?

Success Stories

Laser Transit Ltd.

My Turn

The Incompetent Boss and the Peter Principle

Economic Trends

Economic Advancement Plan Progress Report

Last Page

Chena Tucker