Ah, bratwursts. The spicy, savory sausages are soul food for many Wisconsinites, and they’re everywhere in the Badger State-at tailgate parties, cookouts, community gatherings and so many other events that they’ve become icons in their own right, symbolizing Wisconsin as much as cheesehead hats.
For the T.A. Solberg Co., which owns Trig’s stores and several other businesses, bratwursts have taken on an additional significance. The award-winning brats produced by Trig’s smokehouse operation represent many things for the company, among them employee talent and creativity, pride in producing a quality product and the organization’s ability to differentiate itself from competitors. Bratwursts produced at the smokehouse operation based in Rhinelander have been named World’s Best for two years in a row at the World’s Best Bratwurst competition in Watertown. T.A. Solberg Co. is making the most of that honor and recently announced a significant expansion of their smokehouse operation, which produces a variety of smoked and fresh meats for Trig’s locations.
“We purchased the Upper Lakes building and we’re currently in the process of moving our smokehouse operation over to that building,” says Lee Guenther, president and CEO of T.A. Solberg Co. The 25,179 sq. ft. building on Stevens Street in Rhinelander will not only house the company’s smokehouse, but it will also serve as storage space for the company’s grocery operation. The expansion, Guenther anticipates, could eventually result in up to 20 jobs at the facility. The building’s acquisition and the smokehouse expansion comprise a significant investment on the part of T.A. Solberg Co. Guenther notes that the new equipment needed for the smokehouse alone will cost more than a half-million dollars, and as of press time, not all of the bids are in yet for other items required for the facility.
The new smokehouse is expected to be fully operational by this spring and will have a significant impact for the company. Federal licensing of the Stevens Street facility will enable Trig’s to ship their meat products across state lines. “It creates a whole different business for us,” Guenther says. “At this point in time, we don’t have our arms around how big that will be.”
There has been other growth for T.A. Solberg Co. as well, both locally and in central Wisconsin. Last October, the company opened an Ace Hardware store at the RiverWalk Centre location in Rhinelander. “With the absence of a local hardware store in Rhinelander, we wanted to take advantage of that opportunity,” Guenther explains. “Ace is a very good name, and we’re really happy to be affiliated with them. It was an opportunity for us at the right time.”
The company also opened a Save-A-Lot store in Stevens Point in July, a venture that Guenther says is doing fine. “We’re looking at some other sites that might serve that format well,” he says. In fact, he adds, “We’re constantly looking to the future and looking for opportunities where we may grow.” It’s a practice that has long benefited the company. The grocery chain, which originated with a store in Land O’ Lakes back in 1971, now has stores in Minocqua, Eagle River, Rhinelander, Stevens Point and Wausau.
Forward thinking and the ability to recognize and make the most of opportunities is, of course, important for success in any industry. Leaders of the T.A. Solberg Co. are very good at both looking ahead and making the best of present opportunities, even when many other people don’t see present economic conditions as very promising.
“Low property values certainly influenced our decision to relocate and expand our smokehouse operation,” Guenther says. “The Upper Lakes property is very conducive to the type of processing facility we need.”
T.A. Solberg Co. also makes a point of knowing their customers. “Our value equation-service, freshness, quality and loyalty-is really what makes us successful,” Guenther says. The company, he explains, is value-based. And even through many consumers have had to tighten their belts and are looking for deals, they still want quality products for their hard-earned money and they want to be treated fairly. Exemplary customer service still impresses shoppers, and that’s where many independently owned grocery stores have a leg up on their competition. According to a Jan. 3, 2011 article on the website groceryheadquarters.com, 73 percent of consumers surveyed feel that outstanding customer service is important when deciding where to do their grocery shopping. Among many shoppers, exceptional customer service still trumps low prices.
Along with consumers who are watching their dollars and who demand simplicity as well as variety, grocery stores are facing other trials. Competition from large chain retailers is stiff-after all, many consumers who are pressed for time find one-stop shopping highly appealing. Drug stores and even dollar stores have also gotten into the grocery business, and their appeal to cash-strapped shoppers is undeniable.
So to compete, T.A. Solberg Co. works to make sure their stores offer both one-stop shopping and outstanding customer service. “We have to be all things to all people,” Guenther says, “because of the diversity of our clientele.” Trig’s stores offer WiFi, in-store banking, DVD rentals and many other services, among them a recycling center in Minocqua and fitness centers at the Minocqua and Eagle River store locations.
Interaction with shoppers is one part of the company’s approach to maintaining customer loyalty. While espousing traditional values of quality and customer service, the company utilizes 21st century technology to connect with customers, maintaining a Twitter account, a Facebook page that keeps fans apprised of events, specials and new product arrivals, and a website that enables shoppers to refill prescriptions, build customized grocery lists, and view recipes, cooking tips, store maps and more.
Although the grocery industry in general experiences a high rate of employee turnover, Lee Guenther notes that among the more than 1,000 employees working for the T.A. Solberg Co., there are people who have been with the company for more than four decades. Recognizing the close link between customer loyalty and employee satisfaction (disgruntled employees don’t exactly draw customers in), the company offers insurance, discounts and other incentives to workers. An employee stock ownership program is under consideration. And while many companies have cut corners when it comes to employee training, T.A. Solberg Co. is still investing in it. In addition to regular training, 120 to 140 employees undergo additional training at T.A. Solberg University, a retreat held annually for company associates. “We’ve built just a tremendous director team within our company,” Guenther says. “That’s the key-to hire people who are better at certain things than you are and to surround yourself with them.”
Guenther himself has a lifetime’s worth of experience in the grocery business, having been a part of it since he was only 15 years old.
He joined T.A. Solberg Co. more than 20 years ago and has yet to tire of his occupation. “The grocery business is tremendous,” Guenther says. “There’s always something different.” While Trig himself has retired from the company’s day-to-day operations, Lee Guenther says he has no plans to do so at this time. He’s busy instead thinking about the future and enjoying the present.
“When you’ve been around it for 40-plus years,” he says of the grocery business, “it kind of gets in your blood.”
For more information, visit trigs.com.