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A store where everybody knows your name PDF Print E-mail
Feature
Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM   
Wednesday, 07 February 2018 19:53

Owners of soon-to-close Port Sentry established a small-town culture in which a unique mix of employees and loyal customers were all part of the family

    If you ask the employees at Sanfilippo Sentry in Port Washington what they will miss the most when the grocery store closes its doors in the coming weeks, the comments follow a theme.
    Their family — a family of customers and fellow employees, led by store owners Joe and Santo Sanfilippo.
    “They (the customers) are part of your family, and they treat you like that,” said Helen Michaels, who worked at the store from 1997 until 2003 and has been in the floral department from 2014 until today. “They tell you things that are happening with their family.”
    Meat cutter Bonnie Keller recalled the day a long-time customer told her, “I’m going to die in six months.”
    The woman had just been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, she said, and “I just stood there crying. That’s how close you get to your customers.
  SENTRY LG  “A lot of places don’t have that personal touch. They just don’t take the time. This is our job, but you can tell there’s more of a connection with people here.”
    And don’t get them started on the friendships they’ve formed among their fellow employees.
    “They, too, are like your family,” said front end manager Lisa Pauly, who teared up thinking about the fact that soon she won’t be seeing them every day. “I love working with the people.”
    But the heart of the store, they said, is Joe Sanfilippo and his brother Santo, who have owned and operated the grocery for the last 14 years.
    The brothers have assembled a tight-knit crew of capable employees from all walks of life — teenagers through senior citizens, some in their 80s, and people of all abilities — who mesh.
    “It’s not something we set out to do,” Joe Sanfilippo said of the mix of people who make up his staff. “It just kind of happened.”
    He’s quick to credit the employees with his success, saying, “In this industry, it’s very, very hard to find good people and experienced people. We have a core and base of people who started here with me. I have good people.”
    Pauly and store manager Ron Keller are “the strength and foundation” of the store.
    But the secret to assembling a crew that works well together, he said, is simple.
    “I’m a religious person. I take care of my people and treat them like I want to be treated,” he said. “We’re here to serve, and I think we’ve done that well.”
    When teens apply for a job, he said, he first asks them how their grades are. He asks them about their activities, and tells them he will tailor their work schedules around those activities.
    “I tell them, high school only happens once,” Sanfilippo said. “If you’re out for a sport, maybe you’ll work one day a week. When your season’s over, then it flips.”
    Employees don’t have to call in sick if they can’t make a shift, he said. They can call someone else and swap shifts.
    “We’re very flexible,” he said. “I want to make sure I take care of them.”
    Sanfilippo said he’s “always hired more checkers than I need, more baggers than I need.” And that has allowed him the flexibility needed.
    He’s hired a number of people with disabilities, starting them as baggers and working with their coaches to place them where they will do the best in the store.
    “To me, they’re God’s angels,” Sanfilippo said.
    The Sanfilippos have their priorities straight, Keller said, noting that from the get-go they told her, “Family comes first.”
    They also told her it’s important that their employees enjoy their jobs, Keller said.
    “They want us to have fun,” she said.
    And that’s apparent from the joking that goes on between the brothers and their employees.
    “That’s how it is every day,” Pauly said. “I think we work well together. It’s just fun.”
    The Sanfilippos emphasized service, the women said, but also the importance of getting to know their customers.
    “You get to learn everybody’s name. You have conversations with them,” Pauly said. “I’ve had more people come up and hug me this week.”
    “The relationships are what makes it special,” Keller said.
    And that’s become even more apparent now that the store is closing, they said.
    “I had one man come up to me and say, ‘I’m really going to miss you,’ and he didn’t mean me, he meant all of us.” Michaels said.
    “My customers ask me, where are you going? I want to follow you,” Keller said.
    While the employees have the chance to work at the Piggly Wiggly store that is to take Sentry’s place in the NorthPort Shopping Center, Keller and Pauly said they’ve decided it’s time for a change of pace.
    “I think I’d like to do something different,” Pauly said. “It would be nice to have weekends off, or work them because I want to.
    “I learned a lot. I think everyone should have to work retail so they learn to work with people. I think it’s a good experience.”
    Keller said now that she’s an empty nester, it’s time to expand her horizons. But she’s not sure where that will lead.
    “This is all I know,” she said. “When I started, you had to know someone to get in to work at Sentry.
    “Now it’s time for something else.”

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