ST. LOUIS — National chains, including Wal-Mart, continue to make inroads in the St. Louis market, but the city and its suburbs are still heavy with independent, regional chains.

Schnuck Markets operates more than 70 stores in St. Louis, the majority share of its 106 stores in seven states. The chain opened two concept stores last year, one of which is a specialty store in the heart of downtown called Culinaria.

Independent retailers still dominate, for now


“Just like most downtowns, there’s been a resurgence,” said Mike O’Brien, vice president of produce.

“There are a lot of lofts, a lot of retirees. We saw it as a void.”

The store’s target customers are loft residents and downtown workers. It prepares more food in-store than the typical Schnuck’s, and is doing very well, O’Brien said.

“We call it Culinaria, but everyone calls it Schnuck’s downtown,” O’Brien said.

The second concept store for Schnuck’s is a larger footprint store, at about 75,000 square feet, compared with no more than 65,000 for a typical store. That location has the chain’s first cooking school, with a goal of educating consumers directly.

O’Brien said Trader Joe’s entered the market a few years ago, but Schnuck’s has not seen a downturn in business. Aldi, Shop ‘n Save and Dierberg’s are also strong players in the market.

After closing its Ellisville store in October, Straub’s Markets is operating with the four stores it’s had for years.

“It was a beautiful store, it’s just the timing was off,” said Greg Lehr, produce buyer for the chain. “It was the economy.”

The chain focuses on local and specialty produce — anything it can do to be different, Lehr said. Customers are willing to pay a little more for higher-quality product, he said.

“Of course we try to be competitive on the price standpoint, but we try to have that (quality) advantage,” Lehr said.

One of the ways Straub’s tries to set itself apart is by processing fresh-cut items in-house. Lehr said everything except its salad mixes is done at the stores, including carrot and celery sticks, fruit salads, stir-fry and shish kebab packs and fresh squeezed juices.

Lehr said he is considering putting in a cut fruit bar.

The chain also brings in peaches from Goldbud Farms, Placerville, Calif., that sell for $9.99 a pound, and are a staple item for the stores. Straub’s is the exclusive retailer of the peaches in St. Louis.

Schnuck’s does a similar thing with Colorado corn.

“We’re looking forward to Colorado’s corn season again this year,” O’Brien said. “They have really good corn, and our customers ask for it.”

Schnuck Markets is also doing grill-ready mixes, with vegetables and fruits like pineapple packaged in aluminum, ready for the fire.

Straub’s sources its produce directly from growers and wholesalers on Produce Row, wherever it’s finding better deals on quality products.

“We use every avenue we can,” Lehr said. “Being a small store, we’ve got that little bit of advantage.”

Although the company is land-locked near the middle of the country, Schnuck Markets is going global with its training and education systems. The chain is doing more Web seminars with suppliers, and is passing the knowledge along through instore cooking classes and Web seminars for consumers.

“We’re here and our suppliers are all over the country,” O’Brien said. “And we believe in category management, so we starting doing these webinars.”