Taking Stock

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End Of An Era As Darrenkamp’s To Wind Down Operations After 86 Years

The legacy that was started by Harry Darrenkamp, who “huckstered” produce from a horse-drawn carriage in Lancaster in the early 1900s, will be coming to an end later this year.

Harry’s initial foray into the food business more than 100 years ago ultimately led his son George to open a permanent “general store” in the front room of their home on Union Street in Lancaster in 1932. George and his wife Catherine raised seven boys and one girl and two of their sons, Dick and Jerry, joined the business and remained at the helm of the family business for more than 50 years. Ultimately, Jerry’s three sons Larry, Joe and Dave carried on the tradition and helped the family-owned independent retailer expand with additional stores on Willow Street in Lancaster (1985); Mount Joy (1997); Elizabethtown, (2007) and its first store outside of Lancaster County in Etters, PA (York County) in 2014. The original Union Street store closed in 1999.

The Darrenkamps operated well-run, clean stores that emphasized their meat business. They were also pillars in their community who could be counted on to contribute to local charities and be part of fundraising events. They were, in fact, prototypical of the persona of the independent merchant.

Over the past few years as the industry has undergone seismic change, the Darrenkamps were affected by the number of new competitors they faced and the diverse platforms which some of those retailers offered. Additionally, many of the same issues that other independents grapple with – family succession (a fifth generation of Darrenkamps is also involved in the business), technology and overall capital needs – also impacted the family’s decision to exit the market.

Business became even more challenging earlier this year when Whole Foods opened its first Lancaster store. The entire Lancaster County market will become even more difficult to navigate when Wegmans debuts there on September 23.

Darrenkamp’s withdrawal created an opportunity for Central Pennsylvania market leader Giant/Martin’s to expand its operation in Lancaster County, the fastest growing county in the Keystone State and one where Giant has had mixed success over the past 40 years.

Giant has agreed to acquire the Willow Street store (Darrenkamp’s best unit) and with the family’s stores closing in Mount Joy and Elizabethtown, it will give Giant’s existing supermarkets in those towns an opportunity to add more business. After closing two Giant stores in Lancaster last year, the unit of Ahold Delhaize USA recently announced a $22 million revitalization plan for the market, where it currently operates eight units. That includes launching a new e-commerce hub at its former N. Reservoir Street store, remodeling four stores and opening a new fuel station in Lititz. The Darrenkamp’s deal will only strengthen that effort.

I chatted with Dave Darrenkamp the day after he and his brothers told the associates the sobering news. He called the closing of the operations and selling of the Willow Street store to Giant as being extremely difficult, adding that the family spent many months of consternation over the decision.

“This was a very difficult decision because we will miss serving our neighbors and because of our long history serving the Lancaster community for so many years,” he said. “Knowing how this affects our customers and employees made the decision even tougher.”

Dave Darrenkamp was blunt in his assessment of the business, noting that the competitive challenges facing his family were already significant with no easement in sight.

“We had a great run and enjoyed the business tremendously, but now its time for me and my brothers to move to the next chapter,” he stated. “We’re also happy that we engaged with Giant to sell our Willow Street store to them. They’re a class organization and I’m confident that they’ll try very hard to place our associates in their stores. I think Giant has recognized that we have wonderful people who will be an asset to them.”

According to Darrenkamp, the stores will begin a phase-out process on an individual basis over the next 6-8 weeks. Giant will assume control of the Willow Street location after the other supermarkets have closed. After shutting the store for a few weeks to remodel, Giant hopes to reopen the 50,000 square foot unit before Christmas.

Over the past six months, I’m aware of about 10 independents and regional supermarket chains that are exploring sales options to varying degrees. Many of the issues listed above have triggered their interest in getting out. As the landscape continues to evolve, even more smaller and medium-sized retailers will be looking for an exit strategy.

It’s sad to see a wonderful legacy created by the Darrenkamp family come to end. However, they should be proud of their contributions to the industry and to the thousands of customers they served so well.