As Roth’s Fresh Markets goes corporate, leaders say focus will remain on customer service

Roth’s Fresh Markets on Wallace Road Northwest in Salem. (Ardeshir Tabrizian/Salem Reporter)

Mitch Teal has one piece of advice for the new owners of Roth’s Fresh Markets: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Teal, a Salem commercial real estate broker who has worked with the Roth family since the 1990s, is among many locals with decades of fond memories of the family-owned grocery chain, known for its fresh produce and focus on customer service.

On Wednesday, the Salem-based Roth’s announced it would end local ownership on Oct. 26 as president Michael Roth, the son of founder Orville Roth, retires.

The company is selling to Pattison Food Group, a Canadian company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, which owns Save-On Foods among other grocers.

Longtime Roth’s employee Tim Jennings will take over as president, the company said in a news release. Neither company disclosed the sales price.

“This is an exciting time for our company and our team members,” Jennings said in a news release. “It’s business as usual for Roth’s and all of our market directors and team members, and we will continue to focus on customer service and having the best fresh offering in every market we serve. I’ve developed a strong relationship with the folks at the Pattison Food Group, and I am confident that our culture, values and priorities are well aligned.”

“We very much look forward to current general manager Tim Jennings taking the (reins) as president and continuing to build on what has made Roth’s so successful for almost 60 years,” Pattison Food Group said in a statement Thursday. “This includes highly engaged and productive team members, a strong focus on customer and community service and a commitment to having the best fresh offering in every market. Roth’s will leverage synergies and other opportunities for business growth provided by the Pattison Food Group and we will continue to look for growth opportunities for the Roth’s banner.”

Roth’s had its beginnings in Silverton, when founder Orville Roth, who had been the store manager at Salem-based grocer Erickson’s, and jellybean salesman Herman Jochimsen purchased an 18,000-square-foot store in 1962.

Then, the store was called Roth’s IGA Foodliner. Employees donned green bow ties.

That decade they opened three additional stores, one off Lancaster Drive, one in Woodburn and another in McMinnville.

Roth’s expanded throughout the Mid-Willamette Valley and now has nine supermarkets in the region.

In 1977, the grocer employed 500 workers at six stores. That grew to 1,100 employees by 1999.

The west Salem Roth’s, opened in 1989, was the area’s first grocery store to accept credit cards and faxed orders, an article in the Statesman Journal explained.

The article, from April 2000, described Roth’s remodeling its Silverton store, debuting the new “fresh market” concept that would become its current name.

It described how the prepared food section of Roth’s had grown and the lighting changed as the grocer tried to compete with national chains like Fred Meyer and Safeway.

“Jo-jo potatoes have been sequestered in a small corner of the new, copper-hooded prepared food cases, well away from the selection of imported olives and fresh made tabbouleh salad,” the article said.

In 2015, the west Salem Roth’s added a growler station, encouraging customers to sip local brews and take home their favorites, with other stores following suit. Sushi-making stations also went in.

There are five Roth’s in the Salem area, including one in west Salem, Hayesville, on Northeast Lancaster Drive, Southeast Commercial Street and Sunnyslope.  

Teal began working with the Roth family in the 1990s, several years before Michael Roth took over operations from his father in 1997.

As a broker, Teal helped Michael Roth grow the company with land acquisitions and expansions of existing stores.

“We would go out together and drive around on the weekend and we would go looking for prospective sites,” Teal said.

The produce section at Roth’s Fresh Markets on Wallace Road Northwest in Salem (Ardeshir Tabrizian/Salem Reporter)

Teal said Michael Roth helped secure a job at the Vista store, located at 3045 Commercial St. S.E., for his 16-year-old daughter in the late 1990s. She started doing entry-level work, but later moved to the store’s produce department.

The lessons she learned stuck with her when she later worked at a Safeway in south Salem.

“One day she grabbed a box and walked out through the produce area and she started pulling fruit and vegetables,” Teal said. A manager walked over and asked what she was doing, and she explained she was culling produce in poor condition.

“The guy said, ‘Don’t do that – roll them over.’ She told me, ‘If I had done that at Roth’s, they would have fired me on the spot,’” Teal said.

The stores provided a first job for many Salem residents over the years. Orville Roth was known for an obsessive focus on customer service, training employees to make eye contact and greet customers when walking past them and load groceries into the customer’s car.

“It was the best first job a kid could have. I’m in my 50’s now and still abide by the customer service skills he taught us,” said Lisa Lewis, a Salem resident who worked as a courtesy clerk in the late 1980s.

Tom Hoffert, CEO of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, was among the Salem teenagers who worked their first “real job” at Roth’s.

He was hired as a high schooler in April 1990 and worked there for seven years through college, first as a bagger, then on the night crew and as a checker and backroom assistant.

Hoffert recalled another Orville Roth rule that the boss also followed – always pick up two pieces of litter every time you walk back inside from the store parking lot. With hundreds of grocery orders walked out each day, the collective effort kept the store and its surroundings tidy.

“Roth’s was the original CTEC before CTEC,” Hoffert said, referring to the Career Technical Education Center that helps local high school students prepare for in-demand jobs.

In a news release, Michael Roth said he would mark his retirement with a $1 million donation split between three local organizations: the Salem Foundation, which supports a variety of local nonprofits, Silverton Area Community Aid and the Oregon Garden.

“Giving back to the community has always been a priority for the Roth family,” he said in a statement. “Like Roth’s, every company in the Pattison Food Group shares a culture that values philanthropy and being an active member of every community served – which was something that was very important to me. I know for sure that the team at Roth’s Fresh Markets is in great hands with the Pattison Food Group.”

Roth’s employs hundreds of people in the Salem area. About 60, primarily meat department workers, are represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, a grocery and retail workers union.

Miles Eshaia, union spokesperson, said the sale won’t change the three-year contract currently in effect for their employees.

“We don’t know how the new owners are going to act,” Eshaia said, “but it’s kind of like Roth’s still exists, in a sense, it’s just owned by a different parent company.”

Hoffert said he spoke with Michael Roth on Wednesday.

As the founder’s son mulled his retirement, Hoffert said he had no shortage of suitors interested in buying the Roth’s brand. Some were interested because of the company’s landholdings, or wanted to absorb Roth’s into their own chains. 

Hoffert said Michael Roth selected Pattison because he wanted to keep the Roth’s brand alive.

“Michael spent an incredible time with his team making sure those purchasing the company would be firmly committed” to keeping the company in Salem and retaining local employees, Hoffert said.

Hoffert called the choice to sell to a company that would keep jobs in Salem “an incredible service that (Michael) has done.”

Reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian contributed reporting.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]. Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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