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In 1960, two friends, Bob Martin and Frank Bayley, formed a partnership to begin opening supermarkets in small towns throughout southern Illinois. Eventually, their growing supermarket business expanded into Kentucky and Tennessee. In 1974, they agreed to build a seafood restaurant in Grayville, Ill., and name it Huck’s. About halfway through the construction process, they decided they knew far more about groceries than restaurants and converted the new business into what was then a relatively new retailing concept—a convenience store.
Although the business plan changed, the store’s name remained, and that original restaurant-turned-convenience-store has grown into a chain of 103 locations with more than 1,500 employees. Headquartered in North Carmi, Ill., Huck’s took CSD’s Chain of the Year honors in 2001, the same year that Martin and Bayley Inc. sold the company to the employees, making it a 100% employee-owned organization.
“The founders were getting older and looking at the future of the company,” said Todd Jenney, CEO of the company. “They researched the best options and went with an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).”
Employees pay nothing to be owners of Huck’s. If they are at least 18 years old and work a minimum of 1,000 hours a year, they will start receiving shares of stock after one year of employment. In their fifth year with the ESOP, employees become vested, and that’s when they start receiving forfeitures of employees who leave the company before that important five-year milestone.
As a result of the ESOP and benefits that include health insurance, a bonus program for all associates and a 401(k), Huck’s has a 72% employee turnover rate, “which is well below the industry average,” Jenney said.
Growing Food Business
Today, Huck’s is a popular place to purchase the store’s Daybreak Café gourmet coffee or items from its newest foodservice venture, Grillin’ Zone, which features fresh, made-to-order grilled sandwiches. Most Huck’s stores have a deli, about 25% of the stores include a Godfather’s Pizza franchise and two locations have Quiznos sandwich shops. A proprietary chicken program and assorted grab-and-go items enhance the menu, and Bigg Swigg is the company’s branded fountain beverage program.
Huck’s also has its own line of Five Buck Huck red wine and operates its own distribution center. “With the exception of Coke, Pepsi, Frito-Lay and beer products, we distribute all our own groceries,” said Jenney.
Communicating in a timely manner with all employee-owners is a major goal of the management team.
“A year ago we started the Great Store Tours where the management team visits every location and has a one-hour meeting with all the associates,” Jenney said. “Each department head talks to the group about specific objectives. It has had a phenomenal impact on every level. We have a great team throughout the organization, and this allows us to get to know them better.”
The company continues to grow and just completed construction on a new store. Three additional stores are being built, and the company has eight other sites in the pipeline. For the next few years, Huck’s expects to build three to five new stores annually, plus do a couple of rebuilds.
“We’d rather have 100 outstanding stores than 150 so-so stores,” Jenny said.