YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Nemenz Jr. recalls with affection his early days in his family’s grocery business.
“When I was very young, Dad would take us into the store, give us a milk crate to stand on or sit on,” he says, “and then we’d clean shelves.”
Nemenz’s sister, Elaine Kawecki, also remembers her first jobs in the business. “I worked for my dad in produce, the deli department, floral shop, homemade ice cream, bakery and cake decorating,” she says.
Their father, the late Henry P. Nemenz Sr., became synonymous with the independent grocery business in the Mahoning Valley. In 1976, the elder Nemenz opened his first Valu King store in Boardman and thereafter renovated or opened new stores across the region, including Save A Lot supermarkets that still thrive today.
Nemenz Sr. died in 2015, leaving a legacy that was rooted in the business much earlier.
“It really started with my grandfather,” Nemenz Jr. says. Gustav Nemenz emigrated from Romania following World War I and established a butcher shop in North Lima during the Great Depression. In 1956, Gustav opened what would be the family’s first market – a Valu King in New Middletown. It was the first of dozens associated with the Nemenz name for the next 66 years and counting.
Then, in 1990, Nemenz Sr. saw an opportunity to establish grocery stores in neighborhoods that were underserved, as larger food retailers moved to areas that brought in higher traffic counts.
“He opened his first Save A Lot,” Nemenz Jr. says. “He saw this as an opportunity for independents like us to grow.”
The decision helped to lay the foundation for the third generation of the family to take the business to new heights, both in the Mahoning Valley and beyond.
In 1999, Henry Jr., Elaine, and her husband, John Kawecki, formed a new company and are today co-owners of Horizon Management Inc. Since then, the group has expanded the footprint of the Save A Lot supermarket brand.
“John, Elaine and myself had opened numerous stores for our dad,” Nemenz Jr. says. “In 1999, we split off and started opening stores on our own.”
Today, Horizon owns 21 Save A Lot markets. Its stores in Ohio include five in Mahoning County, three in Trumbull County, two in Ashtabula County, two in Wayne County and five others in Stark County. Horizon also owns three Save A Lot stores in western Pennsylvania – in New Castle, Butler and Wilkinsburg, near Pittsburgh.
“The advantage of our Save A Lots is that they’re located right in the communities,” John Kawecki says. “Customers don’t have to drive out to high traffic areas to do their grocery shopping,” he says.
In Mahoning County, for example, the group owns and operates a Save A Lot on Gypsy Lane on Youngstown’s North Side, another at Wedgewood Plaza in Austintown, two in Boardman at the Boardman Plaza and South Avenue, and another on Fifth Street in Struthers.
“We’re located within residential areas,” John Kawecki says. “We have a location advantage and we occupy food deserts.”
Another advantage is that Save A Lot is a discount market, Nemenz says. “We have lower overhead, smaller footprint than larger stores, so we can offer value. We can operate a low volume but still offer quality, fresh foods and value to that neighborhood.”
Prices can fluctuate every week in the post-COVID environment, depending on the product, Kawecki says. “It’s constantly moving depending on ingredient costs, packaging costs. It’s constantly changing,” he says.
Supply chain constraints have affected the industry and the availability of items is also volatile, he adds. “Last week it was peanut butter and pasta for some reason.”
Still, the stores are fully stocked, as evidenced at the Save A Lot in Boardman.
In 2019, the Boardman Plaza site was hit with a flood that shut the store down for two months. During that time, the group opted to renovate the entire space, establishing a more modern appearance that it plans to replicate throughout all its markets. “This store and our store on South Avenue are completely done,” Nemenz says.
The company has also launched its own line of products, says Elaine Kawecki, including Nemenz sausage that is made and packaged at its Gypsy Lane market and distributed throughout all of the stores.
“We also make our Pippity Pop Popcorn at the Gypsy Lane store,” she says.
In 2017, the company began to manufacture and package gourmet popcorn that comes in a variety of flavors, including seasonal favorites. “We can make all kinds of popcorn,” Kawecki says. “Local schools use them for fund raisers.”
Despite headwinds such as price volatility and a tight labor market, John Kawecki says business remains strong.
“We saw a huge increase during the pandemic,” he says, noting that restaurant closures forced more people to cook from home. “Business has remained strong because of economic conditions and customers who are stretching their dollars.”
A 2021 survey of independent grocers conducted by the National Grocers Association found that independents experienced on average a 17% increase in sales during fiscal 2020. The same survey in 2022 found that despite new challenges brought on by the labor market, inflation and supply constraints, 58% of independent grocers didn’t match 2020 numbers although a large number came very close to hitting that mark.
Horizon’s Save A Lot stores employ approximately 420, 125 of them in Mahoning and Trumbull counties. Among them are bakers, butchers, stock personnel, and cashiers.
“In our meat cutting department, we have a program where you can begin as an apprentice and then become a meat cutter at your own store location,” says Abby Kawecki, manager of digital marketing and the fourth generation of the family to carry on Nemenz tradition. “A lot of that program is also based out of our Gypsy Lane store.”
As for the next decade, Nemenz says that it’s unlikely that the Save A Lot brand will expand in the local market even though there could be opportunities outside the Mahoning Valley.
“I don’t see much room to expand locally,” he says. “We’re looking for more outside the region. We could be opening stores in new locations and looking at all opportunities in the future.”
Pictured at top: Elaine Kawecki, her daughter Abby Kawecki and brother, Henry Nemenz Jr., are the third and fourth generation of the Nemenz family in the grocery business.