The Clintonville business owner didn't plan to leave a career in marketing to run her father's grocery store with her husband. But their customers are glad she did.
Saturday, Nov. 14, started like any typical day for Jennifer Williams. After her morning routine of breakfast with two cups of tea, an email and social media check and then a shower, she made the 35-minute trek south from the Morrow County home she shares with her husband, Scott Bowman, to open the doors to Weiland’s Market at 10 a.m.
That afternoon, as Williams was at the front of the store on a call with a customer who was placing an order for a Thanksgiving meal, she saw a man come in without a mask. For Williams, a staunch proponent of face coverings since the earliest days of COVID-19, that was a no-no.
As she weaved her way through the Clintonville store to find him in the deli department, she could hear customers pleading with him to put on a mask. There’s a sign at the entrance that says face coverings are required for service along with messaging throughout the store that leaves no doubt—the issue is not up for debate. The exchange went like this.Stay up to date with the region’s dynamic business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
“Sir, you’ve got to put on a mask,” Williams says.
“Miss, you can leave me alone now,” the man says.
“No, I’m not going to leave you alone. You put a mask on, or you leave. My husband and I own this store. That’s the rule.”
He reached for his mask—he had one—and Williams went back to her call. But she knew that wasn’t the end of it. When she hung up, she found him in the liquor department with his mask pulled down below his nose. Her message to him was the same. Yet this time, as she delivered it, he whipped out his phone and took her photo to intimidate her. On his way out he whispered to her, “You would have made a great Nazi.”
Williams banned him from the store. A customer who had been behind him in the liquor department told Williams the man had put on a pair of brass knuckles after he took her picture.
Turns out, amid COVID-19, for Williams, Bowman and their team, there really aren’t days that can be described as “typical” anymore.
Four generations of grocers
Williams is the daughter of John Williams, who co-founded Weiland’s Fine Meats in 1961 with George Weiland in a Clintonville storefront at North High Street and West Beaumont Road. The store later moved to Indianola Avenue and Garden Road, about 2 miles north of its current location on Indianola. Her grandfather, Thomas “Harvey” Williams, owned the Williams Food Market on High Street at Weisheimer Road in the 1950s. And her great-grandfather, Thomas B. Williams, owned grocery stores in Grandview in the 1920s and 1930s.
Jennifer Williams grew up on Colerain Avenue in Clintonville with her dad, her mom Jan, a Montessori educator, and her sister, Jill an educator and author. As kids, when the store was closed on Sundays, the sisters went in with their dad so he could tend to the books. Unwrapping cinnamon buns and running them through the meat wrapper became a ritual on the weekends. On weekdays, when the sisters knew their dad was on his way home in the white van he delivered meat in, they’d run over to the intersection of East Schreyer Place and Colerain Avenue to jump in so they could ride with him—five driveways down.
By the time Williams reached the seventh grade at St. Michael School in Worthington, her dad would drop her off in his brown Ford LTD pickup truck that had a large refrigerated meat container on the back. When the kids at school started referring to her as “Jenny in the meat truck,” she asked her dad to drop her off a little bit farther away.
During high school in 1983, Williams became the first woman to work at the store. While her dad was hesitant to have her among an all-men crew, Williams fit in quickly. She started running the only register in the store, then worked the meat and deli counters, made gift baskets and stocked groceries.
With that lineage and those formative experiences, it might seem like a no-brainer that Williams would carry on the family tradition as a fourth-generation grocer. That never was the intention, however.
“Dad encouraged me and my sister to get an education so we wouldn’t have to do something that’s this hard, physically,” Williams says. “There was never a discussion, ‘Oh, Jen and Jill, do you want to take over the business?’ It wasn’t that he didn’t think we couldn’t do it. It was more like, ‘Go get an education so you don’t have to do this.’ ”
Williams graduated from Ohio University in 1988 with a B.S. in journalism. She returned to Columbus and worked at Suburban News Publications as a reporter for four years before moving to an internal communications position at Banc One. She worked at the company, now JPMorgan Chase & Co., for nearly 20 years in marketing and communications. Her dad was proud of her role in corporate America and Williams’ vice president title.
That dynamic changed in 2009 when John Williams began struggling with heart-valve disease, putting the future of the business he had built into question.
‘I think we can do this.’
Bowman grew up in Cleveland, where he worked for a butcher cutting meat starting at age 14. He moved to Columbus to study photography with a minor in Russian at Ohio State University. Unhappy with a job doing dishes in a university cafeteria, he set out to find a job cutting meat. Heading north from campus, his first stop was Weiland’s Fine Meats where he was hired on the spot. He and Jennifer met in the summer of 1985. Their first date was to see “Back to the Future” at the old Continent in north Columbus. They’ve been together ever since.
Bowman would go on to work as a meat salesman for John Morrell & Co. before starting his own handyman business. Even so, he has worked at Weiland’s every holiday season since he started.
“My dad said he couldn’t have picked a better husband for me,” Williams says. “The only time he ever closed the store was on a Saturday for our wedding.”
After John Williams’ health got worse, Williams and Bowman sat down and talked about taking over the market. “I think we can do this,” she told him. “Honey, you have no idea how hard this is going to be,” he replied.
Those who know Williams know her as tough and direct. In deciding to take over the store, she put it like this: “Well, if we hate it, we can just not do it anymore.” The pair took John Williams to dinner in September 2010 at Bravo Italian Kitchen at Polaris. “What do you think if Scott and I take over the store?” she asked her father. He paused and said, “OK,” and, typical of his generation, that was the end of it.
A local ‘springboard’
When Jennifer Williams and Bowman started at the store in fall 2011, Weiland’s had dingy brown carpet riddled with wine stains, old light fixtures, stains in the ceiling tiles and outdated food cases. Called Weiland’s Gourmet Market at the time, its décor included a John Deere riding mower and woven baskets scattered on top of the food cases. “What is this? Is this a farmer’s market or a gourmet grocery store?” Williams wondered.
Williams and Bowman got to work to breathe new life into the business while John Williams continued to work part-time behind the meat counter. Some of the changes included getting rid of the tractor (which customers asked about for several years), removing “gourmet” from the store name, replacing the carpet with tile, replacing the lights and ceiling tile, repainting the walls and decluttering. They also added new food cases every time they could afford to. Another big focus was on Ohio products. Weiland’s carries dozens of home-grown brands, and Bowman thinks that gives it a leg up on the larger competition.
“If you’re a small mom-and-pop making desserts and you want to get into one of the larger chains, there’s a $20,000-per-item slotting fee,” Bowman says. “We don’t have any of that, and that’s allowed us to be an incubator for local producers to come here first, get their foot in the door and then move on to other places.”
That was the case for North Country Charcuterie, a Columbus hand-cured meats business that’s run by “a chef, his brother and their mother.” The business was just getting off the ground in 2015 when Duncan Forbes, “the brother” who is in charge of sales, got a meeting with Weiland’s cheesemonger Kent Rand.
“He was excited enough about our products and our story that he wanted to move forward even though we were still sifting through a lot of regulations at the time,” Forbes says. “I remember sitting in my car leaving that first meeting and I just turned to mush, almost in tears (of happiness at the) positive reception.”
Weiland’s would become the first store to carry North Country Charcuterie’s products, which Forbes says has been instrumental in the company’s success. Rand was so eager to help the family succeed, he helped them figure out pricing, understand the difference between margin and mark-up, and he customized North Country’s in-store product displays.
Forbes says Williams and Bowman empower the heads of the different departments to have these kinds of relationships. Rand even helped the business create an Italian salami from scratch.
John Williams died in 2016 at the age of 78. His daughter had become the face of Weiland’s, and she adopted his philosophy of “don’t make a production about it—just get it done” in operating the store. But Weiland’s, as it exists today, is a team effort. Both Williams and Bowman, who leaves for work each day at 3 a.m., insist they need each other to run the business along with their 80 employees.
Kristin Mullins, CEO of the Ohio Grocers Association, knows Williams and Bowman as a Weiland's customer—and also through Williams' involvement in the group as vice chair of operations. Weiland’s, in fact, will be the recipient of the association’s 2021 Pinnacle Award, which recognizes operational excellence.
Mullins says the pandemic has given some independent grocery stores across Ohio a shot in the arm. “There’s a recognition in communities of how important a grocery store is to them,” she says. “There’s a feel you get when you walk into Weiland’s that you’re not a stranger. That’s really important right now.”
The pandemic caused all sorts of chaos for Williams and Bowman. Aside from the mask issue, Plexiglas barriers had to be put in to protect employees, social distancing and mask signage had to be installed and protocols had to be implemented to limit the number of customers in the store during peak hours.
Williams likens it to “changing tires on a car on a freeway going 80 miles per hour.” Out of concern for the physical and mental health of their employees, she and Bowman changed the store’s hours from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. to 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Even with shortened hours, there was a buying surge in the early days of the pandemic that had Bowman cutting meat 16 hours a day.
While the confrontations with customers who won’t wear face coverings have brought out the worst in people, Williams says the pandemic has brought out the best in most people. More customers than not have expressed their appreciation to Williams, Bowman and their team.
Emmanuel Remy, a longtime customer and member of Columbus City Council, is one of them. He could see what Williams and Bowman were going through, especially as it related to the mask issue. In May, he decided to host a video chat with Williams that he would share on his social channels.
“Running a small grocery store in today’s world has been a real challenge,” Remy says. “I wanted people to understand, whether you agree with the mask issue or not, it’s for the safety and mental well-being of the employees who see hundreds of people a day. She’s really tough and my hat is off to both of them.”
Amy Lozier, another long-time customer who owns Omega Artisan Baking in the North Market, drives from Upper Arlington to shop at Weiland’s. She has pre-existing conditions and says it is the only store she goes to these days.
“I have come to really trust Jennifer and Scott, and the people who work there are so knowledgeable and nice,” Lozier says. “I feel better when I leave there than when I went in.”***
What’s the trick for a small, independent grocery store to hold its own against the big chains?
Pandemic or not, we focus on continuous improvement in everything—even small adjustments customers may not notice, but add up to a better experience.
Even though we’ve been in business almost 60 years, we can’t ever afford to rest on our laurels. Customers have a choice where to shop, and we can’t assume they’ll choose us.
We’re never afraid to try something new. We continue to ask “Why?,” and we find most problems have operational solutions. The benefit to having an independent store is we can pivot quickly. If something doesn’t work after we give it a chance, we adjust again.
“Because we’ve always done it this way” isn’t usually the best answer (unless we’re talking about our chicken salad!). At the same time, we can’t be everything to every customer. We’re not going to reinvent the store constantly or try to chase the corporate stores.
How have your employees been affected by the pandemic and how have they adapted?
Our team has worked so, so, so hard over the past nine months. They’ve gotten the job done, and done it well in a very difficult situation—day after day, week after week, month after month. We encourage our team to take care of themselves mentally. The pandemic continues to be a marathon, not a sprint, and we have to pace ourselves.
Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.