Family is everything at Stadium Thriftway More than a grocery store, for 30-plus years Stadium Thriftway has been serving Tacoma – and making a big impact along the way

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Kim “Kimmie” Cantu has worked at Stadium Thriftway since high school. Now celebrating 31 years there, she is a favorite among customers and co-workers for her “Walmart greeter” style of giving a friendly hello and a smile to every customer she can. Photo by John Weymer

The term “community center” is used pretty loosely to define any public location where folks gather for social activities, but have you ever thought that this term could apply to a grocery store? Well, it does in Tacoma at Stadium Thriftway, 618 N. 1st St. in the historic Stadium District. For more than 30 years this family owned and operated business has been a center of activity not just for food shopping, but also for friends to meet for a bite to eat, to stop and chat with neighbors, to share a laugh with employees, for community fundraisers, and much more.

Stadium Thriftway is a place where people really do know your name.

Owner Mike Hargreaves credits the staff of outstanding employees. “This is a collaborative effort,” he said in explaining that it’s not just “the boss” who takes the lead to make Stadium Thriftway a center of neighborhood life that it is today. “They (the employees) believe in great customer service and great products. I don’t know anybody who does it like we do.”

Some employees have been there for decades. “We have people that have been with us since the day we opened the doors,” as Hargreaves tells it, and this fact illustrates beautifully the family bond among those who work there. Employee longevity says a lot about how a business treats working men and women, and this many years of employee retention speaks volumes.

 

‘WE’RE A FAMILY HERE’

Kim “Kimmie” Cantu started working at Stadium Thriftway in 1987 when she was 17 years old. She went from Mt. Tahoma High School right to her first job and is still there 31 years later. She said that in addition to the warm and friendly environment, the union benefits that the job provides keep her there as well, offering her security now and upon her retirement. She calls Stadium Thriftway her “second family.”

“I love my job,” she said. “We’re a family here and the customers are a big part of it. We’re very closely knit and we can go to (owner) Mike for anything. You don’t see that a lot in other grocery store chains.”

As a “person in charge” (PIC) at Stadium Thriftway, Cantu earned her way to being an integral part of the staff. Most of the time you’ll see her up front working the checkout lanes and helping anyone who needs it, her bubbly and fun personality making her perfect for the job. “Some of the employees here call me the ‘Walmart greeter’ because I’m always talking to everybody.”

Some customers she first met when they were children and now they’re grown adults. “It’s fun seeing those families with younger kids. Like the (Bruce) Titus family – now those babies are married,” she said laughing.

Shift manager Jennifer Harris is another long-timer, having come on board in 1988 and celebrating her 30th work anniversary this year. “I started working here while I was a senior in high school,” said this Wilson grad. “I thought I’d work here through college but everybody here is…a family. I felt comfortable here and decided that I didn’t want to do the 12-hour day thing sitting behind a desk. And this is a union job – our benefits and retirement are worth their weight in gold.”

Then there’s Debbie Hills, who’s been there for 32 years; store director Cindy Hileman, hired when she was 16 years old and now 30 years at Stadium Thriftway; graveyard shift manager Jerry Davidson at 28 year; night manager Tommy Pluff with 26 years; bakery manager Julie Pollock 26 at years; lead morning cashier Cheri Antonson at 25 years; office manager Michelle Lindsay at 25 years; janitor Charles Hamilton at 23 years; dairy manager Joe Garbino at 21 years; front manager Steve Lynn at 20 years; and Scott Fluherty at 18 years.

All of the employees at Stadium Thriftway know their products, the shelves stocked with an extensive selection of natural, organic and specialty foods. The deli feeds customers at breakfast, lunch and dinner, builds custom made sandwiches and serves hot soups; the bakery features the best of the Northwest delivered daily plus breads and pastries made fresh on-site. The floral department showcases freshly cut flowers and growing plants, fruit baskets and balloon bouquets and can take care of arrangements for any occasion. The meat department stocks beef, poultry, lamb, pork and seafood, along with marinated, stuffed and seasoned products for families to take-and-bake. Locally grown produce means that shoppers get the freshest and best-tasting produce available, including organic. Then there’s the big beer and wine selection, with 5 percent off four bottles, 10 percent off six bottles and 15 percent off a full case.

 

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

Dan Hargreaves (right) and son Mike, back in the early days of Stadium Thriftway. Now Mike and his daughter Angela Desjardins take care of the store in such a way that makes Dan proud that what he started lives on in caring and capable hands. Courtesy photo.

This is the type of atmosphere that Mike Hargreaves’ dad Dan Hargreaves and mom Marian Hargreaves set out to establish in 1985 when they purchased the former Lucky’s supermarket back when the chain decided to close some of its stores in this area.

“My dad has been in the grocery business forever and has owned stores my whole life,” Mike said. “I would go with him on Saturdays to his stores when I was 10 years old, so I grew up in the business.”

Mike was right there by his dad’s side ever since Stadium Thriftway’s opening day. In the mid-90s, when Dan and Marian Hargreaves were ready to retire from the grocery business, son Mike and his wife Jan bought them out, keeping Stadium Thriftway in the family.

“I love the business and this was a great opportunity,” Mike said. Mike ran the sales floor and Jan took over Marian’s position to run the office for a number of years. “It was just like my folks – Jan and me with our hands on deck,” Mike said.

As the new owners, Mike and Jan started making changes that were really well received by the neighborhood. “It’s been a fun transition from what it was to what it is now,” Mike said. “My dad always believed in upgrading and I’ve always believed in that too. There’s always something he was doing and we continued doing little stuff then every four or five years it’s something pretty major.”

A big part of those changes came in 2010 when a major remodel added 7,000 square feet to the store with every department expanded. Nothing inside the Stadium Thriftway walls is the same as it was before and, amazingly, the store remained open through it all.

Another big change came about a year ago when self-checkout lanes were added. This was not a decision that Mike took lightly. After all, the store’s whole foundation is based on employee/customer interactions and those who shop there love being able to visit with their favorite cashiers who are more like friends than just the person who checks their groceries. However, reality is that the Stadium District is growing by leaps and bounds. New high-rise apartment and condominium buildings, and soon the Tacoma Link light rail extension, bring more and more people to the neighborhood and where else would they want to shop than at Stadium Thriftway?

“I probably lost more sleep over that decision than anything else we’ve ever done because we’re about customer service,” Mike said. “But we had to do it because we were out of capacity – there was no way to add more check stands. It took me about a year to finally say let’s do it because we didn’t know how we were going to get people in and out of here during the holidays. With a lot of research into how to handle it, we finally were able to do it and gained the capacity we needed.”

Best of all, nothing was lost between customers and the Stadium Thriftway staff. “It’s still hands-on customer service at all times. We’ve been very careful and the interaction with customers is every bit as good, if not better sometimes, than at the regular check stands.” By stationing an attentive employee at self-check out, there is always someone there to help or to just say hi.

Speaking of changes, Mike himself has transitioned from working fulltime to putting things safely into the hands of his daughter Angela Desjardins. Like her dad, Angela grew up in the business too, and her dad is delighted and grateful that the Stadium Thriftway legacy will continue to a third generation.

“I’m so proud of my daughter,” he said. “The greatest thing I think we have done here is to build a staff that is self-reliant, so a year ago I transitioned to mostly part time. I’m probably the luckiest guy in the world. We’ve got something here to where I can come and go – to be involved in the creative part and behind the scenes but don’t have to drive the day to day operations because the staff is doing it.”

The Stadium Thriftway lineage will also ensure that the store will continue its work in the community, partnering with Emergency Food Network (EFN) to help eradicate hunger and feed children. For every $1 that’s donated to EFN at Stadium Thriftway, EFN distributes $12 worth of food.

“About 20 years ago, we made the commitment that we’re going to put donation resources into two major things: feeding people and schools,” Mike said. “These go together in that statistics show that kids who go to school hungry are not going to be successful – they’re not going to learn and they’re not going to break the cycle of poverty unless they get a great education.”

 

A DISTRICT OF SERVICE

Stadium District homeowner Denny Faker has been one of Stadium Thriftway’s best customers since day one. A local celebrity of sorts, Faker has been involved in many key aspects of the district going back to 1975 as owner of the popular Bavarian Restaurant. At the same time, he owned Taste of the Town catering company and sold both in 1998. Already being a regular Stadium Thriftway customer, when Mike and Jan Hargreaves learned that Faker sold his businesses, they invited him to talk. Things obviously went well, and he soon came onboard to serve coffee at his own café at Thriftway.

“I bought the coffee shop and it will be 21 years this spring when I sell it to one of my employees,” Faker said. “During the big remodel, it was necessary to change my location so I built a new shop and named it North Slope Coffee House after the North Slope historic residential district,” which is on the National Register of Historic Places and Tacoma Register of Historic Places.

Faker, who was also president then manager of the Stadium Historical Business District Association for 18 years, is a managing partner at Stadium District’s Bayside Gardens Apartments, built in 1927. Witnessing the growth of the District from the time he moved there at 21 years old, Faker commented on how important service-based businesses – like Stadium Thriftway and North Slope Coffee House – are to the neighborhood.

“We’re a service district more than a shopping district,” he said. “We are the most densely populated business district in Tacoma.”

Looking back over the years, Mike has many, many good memories about Stadium Thriftway. One of his favorites: when people leave the neighborhood and come back to Stadium Thriftway 10 or 12 years later and say, ‘Everybody is still here!’ “It happens all the time,” Mike said.

“It’s been fun to watch Tacoma’s evolution from when we first got here. The growth in the city compared to what it was, it’s been fun being a part of that. I love this community, I love this staff and being here…life is good.”

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