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Arlen Gartner is ND Grocer of the Year

Arlen Gartner, owner of Gartner’s Jack & Jill in Kenmare, celebrated his birthday September 12th by being named the 2011 North Dakota Grocer of the Year.

9/21/11 (Wed)


Arlen Gartner, owner of Gartner’s Jack & Jill in Kenmare, celebrated his birthday September 12th by being named the 2011 North Dakota Grocer of the Year.


The recognition was made during the North Dakota Grocers Association convention banquet in West Fargo, and Gartner has no idea who nominated him. He simply heard the evening’s emcee mention his name during the program.


“Then he talked about some of what I’ve done with the grocery business,” said Gartner. “Elaine took me up to the stage. I turned around, and there was the rest of my family. All the kids and grandkids were there!”


In fact, his wife Elaine and the couple’s children, spouses and grandchildren knew about the award and managed to keep the secret from Gartner for months. Son Chad was the only family member absent that night because of a work commitment, but he called his father shortly after the ceremony to offer congratulations.


Gartner immediately shared credit for the award. “Half of that award goes to Elaine,” he said. “She has always been involved in the store!”


The NDGA, a professional organization of independent grocery store owners that monitors pertinent state and federal legislation, celebrated its 50th anniversary during the convention. Gartner has been a member of NDGA since he and Elaine purchased Jack & Jill in 1976, and he has served on the board of directors for about 20 years, including two terms as NDGA president.


At the store

The business of providing groceries for their customers has been of primary importance to the Gartners, and after 35 years in the store, the couple has made a number of changes to accommodate the needs, demands and requests they hear.


“One of the biggest changes was the Sunday opening,” Gartner said, adding that the large chain stores forced the issue on all the smaller stores across the state.


Locally, Gartner made the choice to add digital scanners to his check-out lines a few years ago. “When we first started, we had to mark everything,” he said, laughing again as he described the old scales that would slowly settle to indicate the weight of a customer’s produce. “We were the first ones to get scanners in town, and I wasn’t sure how people would react at that time, but it’s been no problem.”


He continued, “The convenience now of doing the price changes through the computer, that saves so much time!”


Gartner has also kept up with variety trends, expanding his inventory to match customer tastes. “I remember when our freezers had 16 doors and we got one of everything from [suppliers] Nash Finch at that time,” he said. “Now, our new freezers have 26 doors and we can only carry a third of what Nash Finch offers.”


He acknowledged that 12 to 15 years ago, he and Elaine had concerns about keeping the store in operation, but they made a decision to upgrade everything over time.


Those updates included the freezers, new meat and dairy cases, and a new produce display. The building has a new roof, new doors and even new garbage chutes. The sign has been replaced, although Gartner still wants to add a marquis, and even the parking lot was resurfaced during the summer.


“Now, it’s time for a paint job,” he said as he stood in front of his store Thursday afternoon and surveyed the site.


He and Elaine also plan to have a storage building constructed on the lot immediately north of the business, as well as have new flooring installed in the store, although he assures his customers the work will take place during evening hours after the doors close.


“We have the best equipment possible in the store,” he said. “We’ve put a lot of effort into updating everything that we could, and we’re looking ahead to a number of years.”


The other change coming for the store will be selling the meat locker plant, as the Gartners plan to give up that aspect of their business in order to enjoy more time with grandchildren.


In the community

Along with an individual’s contributions to the business, the “Grocer of the Year” award selection is based on a nominee’s community involvement. Most Kenmare and area residents know Gartner in at least one of the roles he plays in addition to Jack & Jill owner.


He has served on the Kenmare Ambulance for 38 years, including 20 years as secretary-treasurer; 35 years as a member of the Kenmare Fire Department; and 23 years as one of the organizers behind the Kenmare GooseFest. He inherited the Gift of Love program to provide food and presents to individuals and families in need at Christmas time and has chaired that effort for at least 20 years.


Gartner has been elected to the Kenmare Park Board since the mid-1980s and spent about 24 years on the Recreation Board, although he resigned his position there two years ago. He is a member of the Kenmare Community Hospital advisory board and president of the Kenmare Clinic board. He maintains an active presence on the Kenmare Association of Commerce and is a former president of that organization.


Gartner served as head and co-head wrestling coach at Kenmare High School for five years, and has spent the last seven years leading the Peewee Wrestling program in Kenmare with Ben James. He is also a member of the Kenmare Country Club and Nazareth Lutheran Church.


He laughed after he described his busy schedule around town. “Some of the young [people in town] are going to have to step up [in these roles] because the old ones are getting tired!” he said, shaking his head.


Not ready to retire

Although some of his friends and family members kid him about retiring, Gartner admitted he loves to be around people and help care for their needs. “We’re ‘The Friendly Store,’ and we go out of our way to take care of people,” he said, “in any aspect that we can.”


That attitude is demonstrated by the Jack & Jill staff as well, and Gartner appreciates the people who work for him. “The help we’ve had here, they need to take credit for themselves,” he said. “Without the employees, we just wouldn’t be here.”


The site of Gartner’s Jack & Jill has been a grocery store since 1957, with Gartner’s parents William and Vi Gartner joining a partnership in the store in 1963 and becoming full owners in 1967. William Gartner had a new building constructed in 1969, but sold the store in 1972 to WBJ Inc., when it became known as Hosmer’s Super Valu. When Arlen and Elaine Gartner purchased the store back on October 6, 1976, they returned the franchise to Jack & Jill.


Gartner was modest about winning his profession’s top award in the state, but he did say the recognition indicated that helping in his own community and the surrounding area had an impact.


“It’s important for people to get involved in their community,” he said. “There’s so much that can be done, and it doesn’t have to be big things. It’s all the little things that matter.”


One of those little things is the way he greets his morning customers. The store officially opens at 8 am each day, but two or three vehicles are usually parked in the lot long before that, with their owners inside talking to Gartner about local business or swapping hunting stories.


“The coffee’s on at six,” he said, “and when I start refusing people when they’re standing out here, that’s when I’ll retire.”