Business & Real Estate

At 90, Nugget stays young with a fun-loving attitude

Business owners Kate Stille, left, her husband Eric Stille and their son Riley Stille at the Nugget Market in Davis on Thursday, September 15, 2016. Nugget Markets turns 90 this month. Part of the small chain’s success is due to the family that’s owned and run the business for generations.
Business owners Kate Stille, left, her husband Eric Stille and their son Riley Stille at the Nugget Market in Davis on Thursday, September 15, 2016. Nugget Markets turns 90 this month. Part of the small chain’s success is due to the family that’s owned and run the business for generations. rbenton@sacbee.com

A fun, family feeling permeates Nugget Markets.

It’s an attitude that starts with the family that founded the Woodland company and still nurtures its growth.

“We want (Nugget) to feel like family and it does,” said Eric Stille, Nugget’s president and CEO. “That’s a core value for us. It’s non-negotiable. It’s what gets you hired at Nugget.

“Along with that family feeling, we try to create a fun atmosphere,” he added with a broad smile. “If the associates have fun at work, that translates to guests. They feel something special when they walk in the door.”

With the June purchase of two markets in Sonoma County, Nugget expanded to 15 stores with about 1,800 employees. Fortune estimated Nugget’s revenue at $280 million for 2015.

For five generations, the Stilles have made a positive attitude as essential as locally grown produce in their family-owned markets. On Wednesday, the company celebrates its 90th birthday.

That fun-and-family-first formula earned the company raves beyond its loyal customers.

For the 11th consecutive year, Nugget Markets was recognized by Fortune magazine as one of the nation’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.” Announced in March, Nugget ranks 13th overall, up from No. 26 in 2014. (Google is No. 1.)

“With a culture built on a positive, fun-loving team atmosphere, this family-owned grocery company offers its employees industry-leading wages and health care benefits, including 100 percent company-paid premiums,” Fortune wrote in its 2016 review. “It’s a testament to the company that during its 90-year history, Nugget has never had a single layoff.”

In an industry dominated nationwide by consolidated giants, Nugget shines as an independent, hyper-local gem. With the June purchase of two markets in Sonoma County, it recently expanded to a total of 15 stores with about 1,800 employees. Fortune estimated Nugget’s revenue at $280 million for 2015.

“The great thing about our size is we can adapt,” said Riley Stille, Eric’s son, who is learning the business as a grocery manager. “I know on the grocery level, we’re constantly reinventing ourselves.”

Riley’s older sister Stephanie works with their mother, Kate, in marketing. Another sister, Mackie, just graduated from college, but is expected to join Nugget someday, too.

It all started in 1926 with one 630-square-foot grocery store on Main Street in downtown Woodland. Mack Stille, then a 20-year-old entrepreneur, talked his dad, Will, into opening that first market in a storefront framed with gilt-topped columns.

According to family lore, father and son held a contest to name the store, Eric Stille explained. Inspired by those columns and Gold Rush history, an 8-year-old girl coined “Nugget Market” and won a $10 gold piece.

It’s a testament to the company that during its 90-year history, Nugget has never had a single layoff.

Fortune magazine, which named Nugget as one of the nation’s “

Back then, Nugget stocked about 40 produce items, relying on local farmers. To secure fresh meat, the Stilles raised their own beef.

Now, its stores feature more than 300 varieties of produce at a time, still sourcing from local farms.

That farm-to-fork focus is back in style, especially in Northern California, Eric Stille noted.

“It’s great to see support for local farms and local businessmen and women,” he said. “Farm-to-fork is something we’ve always done since we began in 1926. My grandfather had a huge passion for perishables. He scoured the countryside for produce.”

Nugget still sources its inventory as locally as possible, he added.

“Our definition of ‘local’ is within 100 miles of Yolo County.”

Each store typically carries more than 25,000 products. Today that inventory ranges from fresh-baked artisan bread to sustainable seafood to world class wines.

The Stilles have put a lot of thought into grocery success. It’s starts with people and a positive, high-energy mindset, Eric Stille noted.

“I knew growing up, I wanted to work in the family business,” said Eric, 57, who started as a teenage courtesy clerk. “What I like best are the people. It’s a people business; we just happen to sell groceries.”

Gene Stille, Eric’s father and Mack’s son, started helping in that Woodland store when he was still in grade school. Gene, who turns 87 this year, became the company’s president in 1960.

“He still enjoys a walk through the store,” said Kate Stille, Eric’s wife and the company’s marketing director.

All four of Gene’s children followed their father into the grocery business, but Eric, the youngest, is the only one still with Nugget. He became president in 1990 when the chain had four stores. Eric’s older brothers, Greg and Geno, are farmers. Greg grows Kona coffee on the Big Island of Hawaii. Geno specializes in microgreens in Texas. Sister Anne Engstrom is in the real estate development business.

But everybody at Nugget is part of that extended Stille family, Eric noted. Nugget employees become immersed in a company culture built on team spirit with fun as another non-negotiable core value.

“We take the entire company whitewater rafting on the American River,” Eric Stille said. “We like to have fun and we like being a team.

“It’s OK to have fun at work,” he added. “That should be everybody’s goal, but it’s not. We work very hard at it.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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