At only 24 years of age, newly out of college, Nick Sharma became the owner of a failing small grocery store in the upscale Silicon Valley town of Menlo Park, California. In 11 years, Nick transformed a dusty, tired store into a popular destination for both tech millionaires and neighborhood kids. And he’s landed customers who are some of the biggest, best-known companies on the planet. That’s why I wanted to share Nick’s story as part of the Amex Welcomed program with @americanexpress, which is celebrating the fact that over 36,000 grocery and specialty food locations started accepting American Express® Cards in 2016.
“I was a kid,” said Nick, who is just turning 36. But Nick was born to be a small business owner.
“My Dad’s a small business owner; we’re both very entrepreneurial. And my great grandfather was a very small merchant in India. I was riding around on a fork lift when I was only nine years old.”
The Willows Market had been a small neighborhood grocery store in the Silicon Valley town of Menlo Park since 1956, before there was even “silicon” in Silicon Valley.
As Nick says, “the neighborhood changed, but the store didn’t.” The store deteriorated. Bread would get stale and milk would get spoiled, waiting on the shelves for enough customers. Finally, the couple who’d owned it for 20 years sold the store. But the man who bought it quickly realized that turning it around was a bigger project than he’d imagined. He tried to sell it within a year.
There weren’t a lot of buyers. Nick’s father was in the food business—a small food distributor—and he had a friend who was a business broker, who told him, “I’ve got a mom and pop grocery store with huge potential.”
“I was 24 and eager to have my own business. Dad put up the money. I was young and wouldn’t have qualified for an SBA loan.” Though his father had been in business, Nick was a business novice. “I had no experience hiring people or negotiating with suppliers. Anything.”
Right from the start, it was a hands-on, 24/7, working and learning experience for Nick.
The first thing he learned was that the infrastructure of the market was in far worse shape than he had thought. “I was naïve about what was involved. You do your due diligence. But you can only do so much.”
“I thought I was getting a turn-key store. The employees weren’t the right fit for the store. There was a failing refrigerator. There wasn’t enough customer count to have good product rotation.”
“I became 60 pounds lighter. I was working 18-20 hour days, 7 days a week. I wouldn’t shower. I’d fall asleep at my desk. It was very depressing, very scary. But my Dad had put up the money and I thought to myself, ‘I can’t fail, there’s too much at stake.’”
Silicon Valley is known for innovators, so Nick became a small grocery innovator.
“I realized if I was going to draw people, we had to be known for something. There had to be a draw. I had to do something nobody else was doing.” What did Nick focus on? Craft beer.
“The big players were going for wine. No one was doing beer (at the time). I had a four foot section (of the store) open, and I said, ‘Let’s fill this up with interesting beers… I kept expanding, fine tuning, making seasonal adjustments. I started engaging everyone in the process. People started asking for specific beers. And customers started coming from throughout the Bay Area.”
“Beer stimulated the whole store. By being able to identify one segment and execute that in a great way, it helped the entire store. Our customer count went up. We sold more sandwiches.”
But it wasn’t just beer that transformed The Willows Market. Nick knew the store needed to be molded to the neighborhood.
“I know the area very well now. It’s the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Movers and shakers live within walking distance and become customers. They’re nice, level-headed people. There are lots of young families. They’re extremely nice. And they’re patient with me. They know I’m trying my best.”
Monday nights were slow at the market, so Nick talked to neighbors for ideas. “Five years ago, food trucks were big, so we invited them to come on Monday nights.” Nick put out tables and chairs, and it’s become a very popular neighborhood gathering spot. “The food trucks are not a profit center,” said Nick. “But it was worth the gamble. It was a way to get discovered. And it got people in other neighborhoods who follow food trucks to come and learn about us too.”
Nick also started doing barbecue once a month on the weekends, using social media to let people know they were barbecuing ribs and brisket. It, too, became popular, and he went to once a week. “Now we do two batches a day, and we had a custom smoker made for us.”
Nick now has five employees who work for him to do corporate beverage and food delivery to clients such as Facebook, Google, Intuit, Stanford University, and many other nearby tech giants as well as smaller companies.
There were four full-time employees when Nick took over the business. Now he has 25 employees—21 of them full-time. “I never cut anyone’s hours or send them home when business is slow. I always tell them ‘clean and organize.’ For someone who works 40-45 hours a week to lose 10 hours in a week is a terrible thing. I’m scared of turn over. Most people who work here, work here for a long time. Everyone’s a team member. I’ve never lost someone because of money or because of the culture. We try to make it fun.”
With things going well at the market and with corporate beverage service increasing, Nick launched a new project—www.baykegs.com—to automate ordering of corporate and event beverage service. “We do lots of corporate happy hours. Beverage service. Cheese. Dessert.”
“A huge percent of our customers use American Express, and they’re some of our best customers. For American Express Card Members, that’s their card of choice. I want to focus on being responsive to people. My corporate clients love American Express…”
“My advice to small businesses: be part of the community. I see kids growing up, going off to college. I sometimes feel like crying, I’m so proud of them. Be known for something and do something really well. And it will make you a destination.”
“This is what I want to do for the rest of my life because of the people I’ve met through the store, says Nick. “I’ve made lifelong friends from all walks of life. This is very fulfilling—food, wine, people coming together in a grocery store. I love coming to work. The Willows Market—this is my life story.”
This post is sponsored by American Express, but all opinions are my own.
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2017