Leave it to a trained and experienced butcher to develop a business philosophy that cuts straight to the bone. It’s just such a straightforward approach that may help Lamb’s Fresh Market survive and thrive despite competition large and small.
Meat cutting was Ron Lamb’s entry into the grocery world in 1980 at Hal’s Red Owl on 6th Street in Wausau before moving over to his current location at 730 E. Wausau Ave. in 1988.
“It was an opportunity to advance my career,” he said of his move into management at what had been an IGA store since 1978. Lamb took on greater managerial duties in 2007, as the perishable-foods director for all four of Bernie Enkro’s IGA locations. But Lamb and his family would take the ultimate step in 2014 when he and his wife, Cathy, took full ownership when Enkro decided to ease into retirement.
Lamb had been in a management and leadership role for nearly 30 years by that point, and Cathy Lamb — a trained EMT by trade — had been a regular in virtually every part of the store. So, the transition to full ownership wasn’t an implausible leap.
“It was ... a healthy investment,” Ron Lamb said a bit coyly, “but there’s a certain sense of pride in something that you own.”
The move opened the Lambs’ eyes to some of the challenges facing a mom-and-pop neighborhood store in a world where such entities are becoming more rare.
There were more than 118,000 traditional food stores across America in 2016, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, accounting for nearly $650 billion in sales. Convenience stores bit off about 4.2 percent of those sales, while more than 92 percent flowed through traditional grocers.
Market share of the top 20 grocers grew from 42 percent to 66 percent of sales from 1996 to 2016, and smaller operations began feeling a certain middle-class squeeze.
“Our growth has been steady,” Ron Lamb said. “Despite the fact that, you look at Kwik Trip and even Menards, you can buy groceries everywhere.”
Lamb doesn’t fear losing regular weekly shoppers to such entities, but he knows Lamb’s Fresh Market will have to adapt in other ways since a gallon of milk purchased anywhere is one not purchased at Lamb’s.
“Those ankle biters are there,” he said. “So, we’ve got to be better, provide better service.”
Research and development of emerging technologies in the grocery industry have proven challenging for a smaller operation like the Lambs — tech such as apps and online ordering — but sons Andy, 35-year-old store manager; and Jimmy, 26-year-old assistant; figure to help bridge some of that gap.
Walmart is the largest national superstore in the Wausau area, which also includes three Pick ‘n Save locations (owned by Kroger). Regionally owned entities include two Trig’s locales, and a County Market.
So, as Wausau’s largest grocer east of the Wisconsin River, Lamb’s has the northeast corner of the area covered. But no matter who walks through the door, the Lambs do their best to know every one of them. Even Cathy Lambs’ emergency medical training has come in handy from time to time.
“It’s a good skill set to have when somebody passes out while shopping or has chest pains,” she said. She saw a human element in that unique type of customer service as well. “It’s definitely a way to create a bond with people.”
It’s a bond that has extended across generations.
“You see people’s kids come in, and their grandkids,” Ron Lamb said. “You get to watch their kids grow. We want to be part of their athletic events, part of their band concerts; everything.”
To that end, Ron Lamb serves on the board of directors for Peyton’s Promise, a local food-drive organizer, netting a community service award from the Wisconsin Grocers Association in 2017. The Lambs also give to Addicts at the Cross on Bridge Street, the Salvation Army, the Neighbor’s Place food pantry, and others. The Lambs do little to promote such involvement, treating it more as an offshoot of their Christian faith.
“We want to help the homeless and the needy,” he said. “And give some back. Our belief is that will be rewarded somehow.”
That principle and the employment crunch that has labor at such a premium has led Lamb to extend that charitable attitude to their 46 employees (20 full time). When someone needs time off for some family event, the Lambs give it to them and rearrange where necessary.
“We expect you to be at those things,” Ron Lamb said. “At the end of the day, we’re just selling groceries.”