On a recent August afternoon, a dedicated group of people went through their midday workouts at a YMCA gym in suburban Richmond, Va. One story below, on the ground level, people walked by an entrance to the Virginia Women's Center, a medical practice expected to open by the end of the year.
But this is no ordinary street front: Look through the gym's second-floor windows, or glance out the center's glass doors, and the landscape isn't parking meters or sidewalks.
It's the 56,000-square-foot interior of a Ukrop's Super Market.
The view is perfect for Bobby Ukrop, the retailer's president and chief executive officer. He specifically sought out health-related tenants to occupy the other half of the Ukrop's-owned building when the store opened on John Rolfe Parkway in December 2003. He had seen a similar setup several years ago during a Canadian retail tour, and the idea stayed with him. He thought it was time for residents in Ukrop's market area to have the same opportunity.
"[All this] has become a continuum of care that we have the potential to tap into," said Ukrop, referring to the neighboring enterprises. "We're not a big PR machine or a national chain. We're local to Virginia. We're neighbors, so we're trying to operate a business that's helping people."
With 29 full-service stores and one specialty unit to its name, Virginia's home grocer has always included components of health and wellness. As the self-care movement has grown, so has Ukrop's reputation as a destination for information, products and services regarding anything whole health. It's no surprise that Ukrop's "Business Commitments" statement includes the term "community health and well-being."
"I have a hard time separating business from personal beliefs," Ukrop said.
If anything, it seems as if times have caught up with the company's health-mindedness, rather than the other way around.
For these reasons, Ukrop's was named the first recipient of the SN Whole Health Enterprise Award. The award will be officially presented Oct. 18 during the Food Industry Leadership Center Executive Forum at Portland State University in Oregon. SN is a partner in the event.
"When we make a decision we're going to enter into new territory; we're very committed to it," said Kathy Dobos, managing director of retail operations. "That commitment keeps us passionate, and I think that's how we continue to be successful."
Commitment is integral to success, but so is foresight. Ukrop's is one of a select number of retailers that's been able to track customers and act early on trends. One prime example of Ukrop's in action is its successful fresh meals program. The retailer is credited for having launched the first real supermarket home-meal replacement program back in 1989. While other operators jumped in and experimented and ultimately failed, Ukrop's management saw the future and how consumers would increasingly need quality, value and convenience in their lives -- and their meals. A top-to-bottom effort was made to hone the program, sharpen it and scrape out profits. It took years of trial and error, but the long-term attitude ultimately has helped change the way consumers view supermarkets. They are no longer just a food warehouse, but a destination for convenience and value, found in the prepared foods they purchase.
The same nurturing, patient strategy has helped build Ukrop's health and wellness initiatives, where customers find not just pills and products, but information, guidance and services.
"People start to trust us and begin to see that we are really into this and we're serious about the overall wellness of our customers," Dobos said.
The chain, founded as a single store back in 1937, has always focused on three fundamentals: fresh foods, loyalty marketing and customer service. It's not a stretch to see how each has a whole-health connection. Indeed, the retailer considers health and wellness a natural part of doing business.
Some sections are a perfect fit in Ukrop's whole health blueprint. In-store pharmacies, for instance, include a wellness center, a private office where a pharmacist or staff dietitian can meet and discuss issues of concern. Here, customers can get adult immunizations administered, meet for nutrition counseling or to monitor certain health conditions with check-ups.
The proximity of the office to the pharmacy is no mistake. Ukrop's is one of the retailers who uses this department as the central clearinghouse for all of its whole-health programs. That's why John Beckner, a 12-year company veteran, holds the title of director of pharmacy and health services.
"We started doing some disease management with respect to diabetes," he said, recalling how Ukrop's began to fold out its health and wellness ideas into other areas of operations. "It was primarily screenings, but as the whole wellness trend developed, it became a natural extension of what we were already doing in pharmacy."
Currently, Ukrop's has three registered dietitians on its staff. They and the pharmacists are qualified to counsel customers, speak at public events, conduct outreach programs and work with other store departments to develop menus or services.
All this information and guidance requires some context, and all Ukrop's stores have areas that help consumers take away what they need. One such destination is the Wellness Center.
"You'll see those little offices in most of our pharmacies, and those are the facilities we use to do education and screenings and immunizations. We do appointments and walk-ins," Beckner said.
Business was slow in the beginning, but increasing concerns over diabetes, food allergies and weight management have brought increased visits to the office.
"We do about 600 appointments a year now," said Julie Bishop, manager of wellness products and services. "It is fee-for-service, and can be recommended by a doctor."
Nutrition counseling is conducted primarily at two stores, "but we will go to other stores if there's a need; say, if a customer can't travel, or cannot drive at night; or if they live in a county outside of Richmond."
Using the pharmacy as the pulse point for whole health has been critical to Ukrop's success. Grounded in science and focused on service, the blueprint has allowed the retailer to interact with consumers who may be in transition from a doctor's care to self-maintenance, or for those undergoing a life change like pregnancy.
"One of our challenges -- and I'm sure it's a challenge for all supermarkets -- is that we don't have a huge percentage of customers use the pharmacy. It's a big opportunity for us," Beckner said.
Ukrop's outreach is a consumer-direct way to introduce potential customers to the services it provides.
"We do about 150 community talks a year," Bishop said. "There are church groups and businesses, so we do reach a large number of people ourselves by going out and talking to groups. It also generates a lot of interest in products because we'll always take new products and samples along."
There are plenty of diet-related seminars, and many of them are practical. Recent topics include "Backyard Barbecues," "Surviving Summer Travel" and "Food & Mood." Sometimes, the retailer sponsors the affair. Ukrop's Monument Avenue 10K Race is held every spring, and has grown to become the fifth largest such race in the country, according to Ukrop.
Beckner noted that, having shared the same dais or lectern over the years at community functions or health fairs, the retailer has developed solid relationships with several medical practices in the area. As a result, Ukrop's is often treated as a legitimate source of follow-up and continuing care.
"Having a physician's office right here in the store might seem a stretch to many, but when you really think about it, it's part of this continuum of care and makes sense for us," he said. "One of the things that's helped us grow is our good relations with the medical community."
A relatively small percentage of shoppers relies on Ukrop's for the intensive medical focus that's found in the Wellness Center and pharmacies. The retailer uses information kiosks and service desks to intercept the more casual, or "lifestyle," followers of whole health. These desks are regularly staffed by wellness section managers, and are located in Center Store, as close as possible to the pharmacy. The wellness departments surrounding the stations might be several aisles or an entire stand-alone store adjacent to the regular store. Each desk might include a touchscreen terminal connected to a comprehensive, up-to-date database supplied by Healthnotes, the Portland, Ore.-based information provider. There are also books, magazines, yoga equipment, and DVDs and videos of popular exercise and meditation routines.
Shoppers are also exposed to various ideas through a free publication called Ukrop's Live Healthy. The retailer reserves a page in each issue of the third-party-published magazine for specific topics; the rest is filled with vendor-paid editorial on general health subjects. Ukrop's Web site is another source of extensive information. A "Health & Wellness" page not only promotes special events and regular services, it breaks down the healthful food options by each department.
In stores, Ukrop's uses Sunny as the umbrella representative for whole health, but certain departments have additional icons and symbols to guide shoppers to special items. For example, in the deli, there is a constantly rotating menu of healthful selections from the retailer's health-oriented "Delicious by Design" program. All the items have no more than 7 grams of fat and 330 milligrams of sodium per serving; and each contains at least 20% of the daily value of one or more of calcium, protein, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C or iron.
Additionally, each is marked with any number of five keys for consumers following vegan, gluten-free, low-fat, low-sodium and diabetes-management diets. Chefs and food-service professionals in the deli/fresh meals area are well-versed in the choices in case shoppers have additional questions. And well they should. Many of them have been sent to Canyon Ranch, the exclusive spa in Tucson, Ariz., for four days of culinary training in the art of healthful foods.
Another symbol is found not only in the deli/meals area, but the bakery, produce and meat/seafood departments. The yellow-and-green "Ukrop's Makes it Good for U" logo indicates items that have less fat and sodium, more fiber or have good-for-you ingredients like omega-3s.
Organic produce gets prominent placement and heavy signage. Displays in general include nutrient information. There is a heavy emphasis on freshness. Every year, the chain promotes local peaches and signature Hanover tomatoes. Displays of the former include signs noting when they were picked, typically the day prior. In the meat department, shoppers find process-verified beef and pork under Ukrop's own label; the retailer's name is also on a line of premium chicken that's been certified Free Farmed by the American Humane Association.
If an attached YMCA gym is a step ahead, Ukrop's is preparing to sprint. In October, the retailer plans to test market five genetic testing kits in two stores. Personal profiles will be developed by a qualified third-party laboratory for five conditions: antioxidant detoxification, inflammation, insulin resistance, bone health and heart health. Fees will range from $89 to $109 per test.
"The tests show your genetic predisposition toward the condition," Bishop said. "They do not diagnose or predict. But they are results that can be modified through diet and lifestyle changes.
In anticipation of the trial, Ukrop's is training pharmacists, dietitians and natural/organic section managers to help customers discuss and locate products that may have been suggested by their physicians in light of the results.
Typically, Ukrop's is again looking ahead, taking the long-term view that has allowed it to succeed in so many areas -- particularly health and wellness.
"Are we going to create fear with this?" Ukrop asked. "It's possible. But it's like cell phones. We'll be standing around 10 years from now, pretty fluent in talking about genetic testing."
Larger Issues, Too
Ukrop's understands that food, beverages and nutritional supplements are only one aspect of consumers' health and wellness lifestyles. For many, concern over the environment goes hand-in-hand with personal consumption. The retailer addresses this on a corporate level, hauling more than five tons per day of fruit and vegetable scraps from its central kitchen to a nearby compost site, where they're turned into organic soil enhancer. The program was created by Pat Hadden, director of Ukrop's technical services department. A longtime backyard gardener/recycler, Hadden works with a local firm, Watkins Nurseries, to mix and bag the manure-free, nutrient-dense booster. The finished product then goes on sale at stores.
"This full-cycle program is also consistent with our company mission here at Ukrop's," Hadden told a environmental magazine several years ago. "What's needed to succeed in a composting project like this is to have a vision, commitment of partners, and the passion to follow through with minding all the details of getting a new business operation started."
The compost has other uses, too. One Ukrop's store combines it with sand and soil to scrub pollutants from stormwater runoff as well as other pollutants from the parking lot. Clean, filtered water flows from an adjacent retention pond into the stormwater conveyance system. Using the pond delays stormwater from overwhelming and eroding the banks of small streams leading to the James River. -- ROBERT VOSBURGH
I Remember Ukrop's
Like all grand plans, Ukrop's health and wellness initiatives started small. Jeanine Sherry remembers the day in 1985 when she wrote a letter to then-president Jim Ukrop to comment on a display of products the retailer had set up in a booth at a local health fair.
"I said I thought they could have done a little better in terms of product selection, had they had some expertise," recalled Sherry, now based in Seattle as president of NewWellness, her nutrition consulting firm. She was soon appointed corporate nutritionist, a title she held until 2000.
The early focus was on disease state management, and included written guides, store tours and seminars. One of the earliest events, on diabetes management, had room for 70 people. It surprised everyone when every seat sold out within days.
"It started out as a nice community service. No one expected it to be a money maker," she said. "[Ukrop's] has always been involved in the community and they thought this would be one more nice thing to do for our customers."
At the time, the chain did not operate pharmacies. Once they started opening in the late 1980s, however, Sherry remembers the program gaining critical mass.
"When pharmacies came in and John Beckner came on board, that's when things really started to blossom. They were an outlet with more health professionals to interact with shoppers," she said. "We got more into a clinical aspect and saw there was room to grow these programs."
Sherry remains in touch with the retailer today, and believes supermarkets are a legitimate, even critical, link between health and people.
"It's truly a legitimate business model today," she said. "It's not just the granola crunchers, but everyday people who are realizing what you eat impacts your health long term." -- ROBERT VOSBURGH