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On the road with Rigney.

Just over a decade ago, Pete Rigney set out to capture the thoughts and images of America's food retailers as roving editor of Firing Line, a new monthly feature in Progressive Grover. At the time, all he was asked to supply were the tools of his trade--cameras, darkroom equipment, a typewriter--and an automobile reliable enough to make it from one town to the next.

Little did anyone realize, including Pete, that it would take a good bit more in order to reach his 1,000th interview, a milestone reached in the interviews for this month's column. Consider these feats:

* In 10 years, Pete has logged over one million miles visiting 970 cities and towns and traveling through the 48 continental states a minimum of 16 times each.

* He has outlasted two Ford Pintos, one van (which alone logged 332,000 miles) and a mini-motor home.

* He has weathered at least 25 tornadoes, 23 blizzards, 10 earthquakes and an indeterminable number of hurricanes.

* He has crossed every pass in the Rockies, Appalachians and Cascades, and has driven to the top of Pikes Peak three times.

"It's all been like one big fantastic adventure," says Rigney, who exudes the same enthusiasm for his job today as he did on his maiden trip. "There's a story behind each and every interview."

We asked Pete to share with us a few of his more memorable experiences, and after giving 1,000 grocers a podium he was more than happy to take his turn.

"Of all the questions I've asked over the years, my favorite is 'What do you like best about being an independent grocer?'" says Rigney. "This one fellow, in Winchester, Va., told me how if he were working for a chain he couldn't in good conscience accept an IOU from a customer. But he could--and does--as an independent. He admitted that there are people out there who just get down on their luck every now and then, and knowing that he's helping them out by extending credit gives him a nice feeling.

"There was this other man, somewhere in Georgia, who told me that he really didn't need the money anymore, but that he kept his store going because the poor people in his community relied on him. He said, 'What I like to do is stand by the cash register and listen to it ring. Not for the profits, but because I know that I'm part of America's economy. After all, every time something is sold in my store, someone has to replace it all the way down the line.' He also said that since he didn't need the money, he rarely increased his prices. Just an unbelievable attitude. Both of these independents were unforgettable."

Another Rigney favorite was the question, "How would you run a supermarket if you were in charge of the chain?" Says Pete: "Many of the chain store managers that I've met confide that they no longer feel as though they're a creative part of this industry. They were referring in part to planograms which, while considered efficient, were also viewed as a curse against the individual freedom they used to enjoy. One manager pointed out that he ran one of three stores operated by the same chain within the same geographic area. Each had to follow the same planogram. The problem was that none shared the same demographic mix of shoppers. Occasionally, what the threesome would do was swap products to come up with a mix that more closely paralleled their respective customer base. Of course, this had to be done without chain knowledge. Isn't that something? Here's three grocers going out on a limb to help their customers, their stores, their company. They had nothing to gain personally, but that's the kind of people they are.

"I've had my share of fun interviews, too. There was this manager in a small town in Maryland who rambled on for 10 minutes--before I even asked the question--about how it had become a young man's business and that old-timers like himself had to be careful because the kids were replacing guys like him. He explained that he went home after work and went to bed every night at 8 p.m., even though it would drive his wife crazy since she was a night owl of sorts. Anyway, he pointed out that since he'd gotten a good night's sleep he came into work feeling like a tiger every morning at 5 o'clock. Well, when I finally got to ask him the question, 'What do you do to get away from the pressures of business when you go home at night?' he looked at me, grinned, and said, 'That's easy, I sleep.'

"On the heavy side, I'll never forget an experience I had in New England. It was back when I had the van and, I don't even remember why, but for some reason I had to spend the night in a sleeping bag in the van parked in the parking lot of the store I was going to visit the next day. It was a cold, wet night and I was really kind of depressed, thinking to myself that there's got to be an easier way to make a living. Anyway, when I went inside the next morning I learned that the man I was supposed to interview had apparently seen me earlier, asleep in my van and he was more than a little arrogant. He asked what I was doing there and why I came. I told him that I thought he seemed a bit hostile and then asked him if there was something wrong.

"He said, 'Yeah, you interrupted my suicide.' I started to laugh. He said, 'I'm serious. I came in to put my affairs in order.' Realizing that he wasn't joking, I asked him if he wanted to talk about it. Well, we spent about four hours talking, but I finally convinced him to see things differently. When we got to the interview, it was hard to take his picture because he was crying and trying to wipe away the tears. He just kept hugging me right there in the store and told me he's gonna make it now. That last time I spoke to him, he was doing just fine."

Indeed, Rigney considers his life greatly enriched by the hundreds of personal friendships he's developed with the men and women he's developed with the men and women he's developed with the men and women he's met over the years.

"I've had the privilege of talking with a lot of people who just pour out their hearts to me. Not the kind of stuff that makes headlines, but real, nonetheless.

"I recall this store owner in Orlando who explained how every Thursday morning this bus load of senior citizens would come into the store and, after 15 minutes, could hardly stand on their feet anymore. The grocer started taking chairs out of the office so they wouldn't collapse in the aisles. And then one day he decided to buy some chairs and give them their own spot to sit and rest. And that led to a coffee urn. The old folks would come in and sit down and he would join them and they would just chit-chat for an hour or so. He told me, 'Now we have a regular roundtable. They're just nice people that nobody talks to anymore. They're all friends today. I don't do it for any kind of gain; they don't really buy anything. I wish I could tell them, though, what it means to me to spend this time with them.'"

In many ways, Rigney personifies the thousands of grocers who, though their perseverance, sincerity and unwavering dedication, make the food industry a model for all others to follow. That's why we at Progressive Grocer look forward to the next 10 years with Rigney on the road.
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Title Annotation:Pete Rigney
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Article Type:Interview
Date:Nov 1, 1984
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