Turning 50: Orville Roth’s grocery business started in Silverton, stayed to serve

June 2012 Posted in Business

Darin Rybloom, Larry Hodge, Chris Kiesel, Orville Roth, and Michael Turner at the Silverton Roth\'s.By Brenna Wiegand

Fifty years ago, a rawboned farm boy from North Dakota got the break of his life – but nothing comes cheap.

The eldest of four children, Orville Roth was 10 when his father died. Any dreams of a life of ease or of carrying on the farm himself vanished in the dust as his widowed mom moved her young brood to Salem, where they found jobs and made ends meet.

“There wasn’t such a thing as going fishing or going hunting or golfing; if you wanted to buy something you had to work for it,” Roth said. “Mom had four children and she just taught us to work. I say that loosely because when you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s not work.”

Delivering papers and picking beans gave way to a job at Erickson’s grocery store. With pride, a 16-year-old Orville Roth donned his first white shirt and green bow tie – the store uniform – and dug in.

At 25, the lanky, seemingly tireless Roth was made manager of the Salem grocery. He had scrimped and saved to buy a 1956 Chevrolet and was starting a family.

Somebody was taking note. Herman C. Jochimsen made the rounds of grocery stores as a candy salesman and he was increasingly impressed by how Roth kept the store and  his gusto for selling his candy.

Jochimsen, too, knew the satisfaction of a good day’s work, choosing to keep his candy route even though he was a business partner in three Salem drugstores. He saw Roth in Salem and a store for sale in Silverton and wanted to know: Would Roth like to go into business together?

Roth had the drive, that wiry frame in perpetual motion, the expansive personality… he was just a little bit broke.

“I had 500 bucks,” he said, “Herman put up $60,000 and took the title to my Chevy because he knew how much pride I had in my Chevy.”

There was no question of the uniform Roth wore Aug. 5, 1962, the day he and Jochimsen launched Roth’s IGA Foodliner in Silverton. A quick tug on the bowtie and Roth set sail, blissfully unaware of the veritable Bermuda Triangle lurking just over the horizon that his blue eyes now scanned so optimistically.

“Gary Ohren was store manager,” Roth recounts. “Well, within the first couple months, he came down with pneumonia; his wife gave birth to their first child …and then came the October Storm.” …otherwise known as the notorious Columbus Day Storm, Oct. 12, 1962.

“Silverton was out of power for seven days,” Roth said. “The only light we could see was at the hospital where they had a generator. We lost some of the windows so Gary and I slept in the store. We ate ice cream and we drank chocolate milk, and about the third day that was not fun, as everything melted and the meat started going bad. And we lost it all, but we survived.”

Roth’s managed not only to survive, but to take root and thrive, casting branches across Salem, McMinnville, Stayton and beyond. Roth’s Fresh Markets has become a locally owned chain of nine grocery stores peopled by 750 green bowtie-wearing employees.

Orville’s friendliness and Jochimsen’s business acumen proved unstoppable, steering them to good locations for stores and formulating a business model that was about more than the bottom line. It took awhile for Roth to figure out why he’d become devoted to such a punishing career.

“The grocery business has been not fun at all,” Roth said. “It’s 24 hours, 7 days a week, 364 days a year. …But if you enjoy working with the public, this is the business to be in. I’ve never sold cars; never sold furniture, but I know that people buy groceries more often than either of those two commodities.”

The ship built by Roth and Jochimsen, who passed away in 1973, proved seaworthy enough to withstand boom-lowering interest rates and the onslaught of national grocery armadas. Orville likens it to the four legs of a chair: First, take care of the customer.

“You can say you have customer service; you can say you’re friendly, but the proof is in the pudding,” Roth said, explaining also that the reason the customer is always right is “because there are more of them.”

“I started out with four checkers and four courtesy clerks and today the procedure at Roth’s is still to have one courtesy clerk to one checker to provide the kind of customer service that is our niche – and our success.”

The white shirts, green bowties and aprons add to the “winning team” ambiance Roth says they share with the likes of Les Schwab and Nordstrom.

Next, take care of the employee – who, Roth is quick to point out, is also your customer. “The big guys are all open on Christmas now, but as long as I’m alive, Roth’s will be closed Christmas Day,” he said. “It just shows great respect to the employees.”

Longevity of employees, Roth said, has fallen out of favor among high volume chains. “When an employee has four weeks’ vacation, you’re basically talking $2,000 a year cost that we have that maybe the competition doesn’t because they don’t have employees that get that much vacation.”

The numbers don’t lie. Silverton Roth’s Store Manager Darin Rybloom is only the fifth manager at the store in 50 years.

The third chair leg lies in taking care of your vendors; in other words, pay them on time.

The fourth  – getting involved in the community – is where Roth’s tends to go to extremes. It is, like the green and the white, a Roth’s strong suit.

You can start small – pop can by pop can – and see it add up to the $30,000 Roth’s has funneled into Mark Twain Middle School through cans donated by the community.

You can trace hundreds of thousands of dollars the Roth Family Foundation put into the installation of the top-notch Children’s Garden at The Oregon Garden. Roth’s has provided transportation for fifth grade classes all over the state to make a day of the Garden’s offerings. You can go straight to the heart with Roth’s $5,000 “save” after somebody burned down Silverton Little League’s equipment shed a few years back.

“It doesn’t take a mathematical wizard to figure out why we’re able to do it and the big guys aren’t,” Roth said. “Everything we earn stays in the company and stays in Oregon. If we have some extra savings that we can give back to the community, we can do it.”

“That’s what keeps me awake at night; the challenge: we’re talking about 1 percent margin today. If a Silverton or Kennedy baseball team loses a game today, they can come back and win tomorrow. But when you’re in business, if you lose, you don’t come back. I don’t like to lose.”

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