A suburban grocer moves into Baltimore

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Marshall Klein, fourth-generation scion of the Klein's grocery store family, is proud of the sweet potato pies stacked near the entrance to his newest supermarket, ShopRite of Perring Crossing in Parkville.

"We steam the potatoes ourselves," and on a busy day 50 pies go through the check out aisles, Klein said Wednesday as he balanced his 6-foot-5-inch frame on a folding chair in the community room of the new store off Perring Parkway just north of the city.

The pies — like the store's urban setting — are new for the Klein family, which has run grocery stores in Harford County for almost 90 years. The 56,000-square-foot ShopRite opened last month in a Baltimore County neighborhood that had been without a supermarket for years.

Klein, 31, chief operating officer of Klein's ShopRite of Maryland, is intent on leading his family's business in a new direction. By working with a nonprofit that helps bring grocery stores to underserved urban areas, Klein seeks to open more ShopRite stores in Baltimore City and urban areas of the Baltimore County.

It's as much a personal as a professional journey.

"I struggled — and I still struggle — over how I'm going to define myself," said Klein, who grew up performing odd jobs at his family's stores.

At 11, he was pushing carts and examining profit and loss sheets. At 18, he worked as a butcher. About a year later, the keys to a store were tossed to him and he became an assistant manager. Finally, in his late 20s, an opportunity arose that Klein believes will let him make his own mark on the family business.

In October 2008, the Kleins joined the Wakefern Food Corp., a New Jersey-based cooperative that owns the ShopRite name and helps regional grocery chains compete with national brands. One of the co-op's members was Brown's Super Stores Inc., a family-run firm that operates about a dozen ShopRite stores in and around Philadelphia. Brown's also runs a nonprofit, UpLift Solutions Inc., that helps grocers launch stores in underserved, inner-city areas.

Klein was intrigued by UpLift's work. At the time, he "had to get out of Harford" and moved to Baltimore shortly after graduation from Franklin & Marshall College.

"If we're going to expand, we have to go into Baltimore County, Baltimore City," said Klein, who lives in downtown Baltimore's Ridgley's Delight neighborhood. "When we joined the co-op, we got a real vehicle to do that."

In Harford County, where Klein's has dominated the grocery market for decades, the chain saw nearly $115 million in annual sales through March 2012, according to Food World, a Columbia-based trade publication that analyzes the Mid-Atlantic grocery market.

In the same period, Klein's garnered more than 15 percent of the county's market share. The county's next-biggest retailers — Walmart, Wegmans and Giant Food — each captured about 10 percent of the market, with sales of roughly $75 million each, Food World reported last month.

Shortly after joining the cooperative, the Klein family started talking with the Brown family and Baltimore City officials about opening a store in West Baltimore's Howard Park, on the site of a former Super Pride that had closed more than a decade earlier.

"Historically, the Klein family has been in the suburbs," said Sandy Brown, who sits on UpLift's board and has been involved with the Kleins' Baltimore projects. "This is the new generation."

"Not only was it an opportunity to grow our business, but it's also an opportunity to do good business," Klein said.

His family company had faced challenges with its suburban stores over the years. In Harford County, the opening of a Walmart significantly cut sales at two Klein's markets. At the Jacksonville store in Baltimore County, neighbors were outraged by zoning changes the family sought to open a branch.

In more urban areas, they faced fresh challenges. For instance, residents in the Parkville and Howard Park neighborhoods didn't want to be bystanders; they wanted to be involved in the stores' development. They wanted a medical clinic, pharmacy and a community room in the store.

At this point, UpLift stepped in to help. Said Klein: "UpLift is our community relations arm."

UpLift focuses on finding neighborhood organizers and working with them to understand the community in which stores will be located. At the Parkville store, for instance, UpLift and Klein's have worked with the Halstead Academy of Science and the Arts, the Harbel Community Organization and the Hillendale Improvement Association, Brown said.

Holly Freishtat, Baltimore's food policy director, said it is important for grocery companies to adjust their business to the specific location.

"When you're bringing a grocery store back into the city, you can't just bring in the suburban model," said Freishtat, who has met with UpLift representatives to discuss Klein's plans in Baltimore.

Klein's stores are important because they provide fresh, healthful food, said Freishtat, whose office estimates that one in five Baltimore residents live in "food deserts," or areas in which good food is difficult to procure.

The stores can also train neighborhood residents for long-term employment, Freishtat said.

About 230 people were hired to work at the Parkville store, with most of the new hires coming from surrounding neighborhoods, Klein said. He added that the company also plans to hire local workers for the Howard Park store, which is expected to open in mid-2013.

With the opening of the Parkville store and construction about to begin in Howard Park, Klein is beginning to think farther down the road.

Simply expanding the chain would have gratified him a few years ago, he said. But today he has greater aspirations.

"Now, it's more about the type of company that I run than the size of the company," Klein said. "I'm hoping to open as many stores that I can reasonably open in Baltimore … and maintain the level of service that I want to maintain."

So far, Klein's customers seem pleased.

"It's nice, it's clean. The choices are awesome," said Ebony Love, a New York native who lives about a mile from the new Parkville ShopRite.

Jay Loane, who lives in Harford County but has taken up shopping at the Parkville store, makes use of its motorized scooters — and says the staff is always willing to bring a scooter out to his car when he arrives.

"You get full service and then some," Loane said.

Still, not everyone is happy that Klein's is planning to open stores in Baltimore. The local branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers union has been picketing the Parkville store.

Ellis Staten, a union representative who was passing out fliers last week, said he would prefer that a unionized grocer expand into Baltimore and Baltimore County. The local represents employees of area grocery stores, including Safeway, Giant and Shoppers.

The union hopes that area residents will shop at unionized stores, Staten said, adding that it will continue picketing for six months to a year.

The picketers don't faze Klein — he's seen them before outside his family's newly opened suburban stores.

"It's very important to us to be able to have a relationship with our employees directly," said Klein, adding that he thinks unions create a barrier between workers and employers.

Klein has become a fixture in the Parkville store, and employees smile and wave at him and shake his hand as he passes.

"It's a family-owned store," said Mark Price, a Pikesville resident who works at the customer service desk. "You really get that personal attention."

steve.kilar@baltsun.com

twitter.com/stevekilar

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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