Change at the grocery store - Gilberts prepare for retirement
November 28, 2022
“For this size store and how old it is, it has everything a customer can use and want.”
That’s the way Tammy Gilbert describes Gilbert’s Sentry. And it’s only going to be enhanced when new owner Anthony Lofaro of Marquette, Mich., takes over Dec. 6.
After more than three decades of owning and operating the 14,500-square-foot grocery store at 115 S. Superior St., LeRoy “Butch” and Tammy Gilbert are retiring.
“It’s going to be scary, because I’m not used to having off ever … ever,” Gilbert said.
Lofaro operates a store in Michigan as well as Lofaro’s Fresh Market in Peshtigo. As part of Great Lakes Fresh Market, Lofaro will dispense with the Sentry brand.
“As far as changes, he’s going to do more and better changes,” she said of Lofaro. “I mean, how do I say that—you look at your living room for 28 years. You don’t do anything to it. Somebody else walks in and they can see ways to change it around. “Everything’s the same. It’s just branding.”
Lofaro is expected to enhance the store with new ideas and continue to support the community through various endeavors, including offering the scrip program.
“Give it a chance,” Gilbert said. “He’s here to support the community. He’s down to earth. It’s not corporate.”
She said it was important to her and her husband that the store not become part of a large corporation, that it remain a family operation. “I did not want anything to be corporate,” she said. All current employees will keep their jobs as part of the sale. As for the sale date, the store will be closed Dec. 5 for a complete inventory of every product in the store. Then, when it reopens Dec. 6, it will completely be Lofaro’s store.
It all started when Leroy Sr. and Janis Gilbert arrived with their five children in Antigo in 1967 from Berlin, with partner Emery Williams, and purchased the Easy Way Super Valu at 109 Superior St. from the Super Valu Corporation. He rented the site until the mid 1070s. In 1974, he purchased several homes and razed them to make room for his new store at the current site, which opened in 1976. Lee Gilbert sold the store to Danny Jacobson in 1988 and it became a Super 3, but Tammy and Butch Gilbert remained involved in the grocery trade at the Pick ‘n Save store. That store was later bought by Copp’s. In February 1990, Jacobson proposed the Gilberts buy back the Super 3 store. It became Butch’s ShopRite and in 1998, Butch’s SuperValu, with the move to the Gilbert’s Sentry name coming five years ago. Gilberts’ stores have seen a few significant firsts in the local grocery business.
“Actually, when my father-inlaw came here, he was the first deli/bakery inside of a store,” she said. “He was the first one to go with scanners.” She said they spent more time training the customers with the scanners than the employees. “For three or four months, we still marked the product but scanned,” Gilbert said. The store also became the first one open 24 hours a day. “We had three shifts going on all the time,” she said.
Now, there are two shifts, and the store is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. LeRoy and Tammy Gilbert continue to own Gilbert’s Sentry Foods in Hortonville, but their son, Jeff, is in charge of dayto-day operations. They have owned that store for 19 years. “Down the road, we purchased the grocery store in Hortonville … and went to Gilbert’s Sentry,” Gilbert said. Tammy Gilbert said owning multiple stores allows them to share resources and products, all of which benefits the customers.
“This year, we decided it’s time to close it up,” she said of the Antigo store. “We thought about it a year ago, and then my husband got diabetes, which he’s controlling, but it’s now at the point where he can’t work. We’re going to be close to 65, and the opportunity arose.”
Their other son, Eric, works at the Antigo store, but he, too, was looking for time away he could not get as owner. He’ll stick around to help behind the scenes, though.
“We asked Sentry to find us a buyer, which of course they did not,” Tammy Gilbert said. “So, we went outside the box again, because we wanted to keep it a Sentry store. Then, this gentleman (Anthony Lofaro) came to us. I feel he’s going to do well.”
Gilbert’s Sentry—and its many incarnations before now—has towed a tough line in the Antigo grocery business. In the beginning, grocery stores nearly had a monopoly on groceries. There was no serious competition from the gas stations and convenience stores, or the big box stores. The Gilberts even served the local radar base until it closed in 1977.
“Your gas stations didn’t carry all this stuff,” Tammy Gilbert said. “You didn’t have Menards carrying groceries. Fleet Farm never thought of carrying groceries.”
Other grocery stores came and left along the way, but it wasn’t always easy for the Gilberts.
“It’s been very hard,” she said. “Part of it is because, at the time, me and my husband always worked seven days a week. And both sons helped out, too. Owning it for 32 years does help.”
During tough times, their suppliers would often let their bills float for a few extra days or weeks, knowing the money would come soon enough. Gilbert said the Antigo Daily Journal was among those businesses that helped the store by holding off on what was owed them. Beverage and candy distributors would also patiently wait for payment. A major road project also hampered the store, but Gilbert said there were enough back driveways that helped customers get to the store.
“We’re on the right end of town, not so congested,” she added. But, mostly, the store has been around for so long because of its loyal customers. “The problem is, part of it, is when somebody dies, those are our customers,” she said. “We have to get out there to get the young people in.”
She said the new owner will be challenged to get the younger customers away from the self-checkouts, the big box stores and the c-stores. Offering scrip, which benefits the local schools, is one way. The program brings young parents into the store, and hopefully they will see everything the store has to offer.
“They see that just because we’re this size does not mean we can’t offer the right things,” Gilbert said.
Like most businesses, much of it comes down to image and perception. For example, during the product shortages that left many shelves empty at the big box stores, Gilbert’s Sentry looked fully stocked. Having a smaller store with less shelf space gave customers the impression that the store could continue to meet their needs when others could not. The liquor, deli, bakery and meat departments continue to be popular destinations for customers. Also, like other businesses, staffing is a concern. She said many applicants are 15 and 16 years old, but few if any adults are applying for job openings.
“When you’re a certain size store, you can only offer so much money,” she said. “Your employees are like a family when you have this size store. And if you don’t treat them like family and friends, you ain’t gonna keep them.” That extended family—as well as the new and loyal customers—will certainly miss the Gilberts when they finally step aside. “It’s going to be a very sad day for me,” Tammy Gilbert said.