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When Wally Wagner’s grandfather joined IGA as a charter member, he received a letter with his certificate of membership from then-president Don R. Grimes. One paragraph in particular from that letter still resonates with Wagner:
It is my hope that as the years pass you will be ever more grateful that you joined IGA. While you receive these great benefits, the real lasting benefit will come when you aid in every way to make our IGA cooperative movement a great success so that independent grocers throughout the country may be able in turn, to bring such benefits to the consumer in their communities that a lasting era of prosperity will come to our country.”
Now, almost 100 years since A.J. Wagner opened his first store in Minster, Ohio, the fruits of his labor are paying off. In an event on Friday, August 16, Wally Wagner was inducted into the Ohio Grocers Association Hall of Fame. The ceremony took place at a local golf course, followed by a luncheon. (Click here to see OGA’s coverage of the event.)
As a third-generation grocer, Wagner has been working in the business “pretty much all my life,” starting with sorting bottles and packing eggs as far back as he can remember. After graduating college in 1979, he took over the business, which has grown to include three stores and multiple changes and expansions to the original Minster store.
With 40 years under his belt as owner, he’s now taking his place with other prominent names in the state, like Baker’s IGA owners Gary and Terrie Baker, who were inducted in 2014. “It’s quite an honor to be in the Hall of Fame in Ohio,” Wagner said. “I’m very appreciative. We couldn’t have done it without our customers, staff, and associates.”
Situated in west-central Ohio, all three Wagner’s IGA locations are in rural communities about 12 miles apart. With the Kroger home office only about 100 miles away in Cincinnati, Wagner’s has heavy chain competition in their area. “That means we have to work hard to stand out,” he said. Being independent gives them the flexibility to adapt to changes in the industry and at the same time allows them to focus on what they do best: serve their customers.
In his acceptance speech at the induction ceremony, Wagner touched on the example set by his parents of greeting customers by name, asking about their families, and important events in their lives. He quoted the mission statement put into place by his grandfather: “To be helpful, friendly, and fair in everything in the work that you do.”
Wagner also quoted from the letter IGA Chairman Grimes wrote to his grandfather, “Use the strength of the IGA cooperative and the country will prosper,” he said, adding, “That vision is still true today with IGA.”
Through all the years, three aspects of Wagner’s have stayed the same: great customer service, community involvement, and a large selection of signature, made-from-scratch products in the meat department and deli.
“A lot of our recipes are our own and go all the way back to my grandfather,” he said. For example, as a nod to the area’s German heritage, they make a variety of sausages, such as knockwurst, bratwurst, and summer sausage. In the deli, about 80 percent of the salads are made in house.
“We do everything from smoked salmon to corn and black bean salsa, and that’s something you’re just not going to find in a local chain store,” he said. Upcoming changes include expanding the organic produce offerings at the Minster store.
While Wagner’s stores are in a rural area and have seen many of the same customers throughout the years, in recent years the communities have benefited from an influx of young families relocating or returning to the area with the growth of the local economy.
“We’re seeing a lot of young families moving back to our area. They see the benefits of raising their kids here, and we’re fortunate to have strong, local companies that provide good jobs,” he said.
As for community spirit, Wagner’s has been dedicated to the communities they serve for generations, contributing donations to local athletic teams, schools, and church and community organizations. In addition to fundraising and charitable contributions, Wagner’s has several of their own programs that exemplify their community involvement. These programs include: a summer reading program, Dollars for Scholars, community wellness program, and Wagner’s Recycling Program.
Our community involvement is so ingrained in our business that it is more of a way of life,” he said. Looking ahead, Wagner doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon, but when he does, he’s open to the possibilities of what’s in store for his business. He and his wife Nancy have four children—three daughters and a son, with a first grandchild on the way—but at this time Wagner doesn't see them coming back to the business. “Two of them are professors and the other two have good jobs they seem very happy with. All four of them live in larger cities and love the urban life. But you never know,” he said.
Whatever the future holds, he’d like to keep the stores’ names the same and continue the IGA tradition. “We’ll see what happens down the road,” he said.