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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2023

Grocer, Giver

Northgate González Market’s founding family couldn’t afford to change the original signage bearing ‘Northgate’ on the Anaheim liquor store they turned into a local grocer in 1980.

They ended up keeping Northgate in the name—even after raising capital—in a nod to the family’s migration north from the Mexican state of Jalisco to the U.S.

The company’s growth has become an enviable success story for a family-owned business, with founder Don Miguel González’s 13 children and more than 30 third-generation family members involved in the business.

Today, Northgate González counts more than 6,000 employees across its corporate offices and 41 stores in Southern California. With more than a third in Orange County, it is OC’s 37th-largest employer.

The Latino-inspired grocer, still based in Anaheim, celebrated 40 years in business this past January.

Each of the company’s stores has come to serve as gathering places for the communities they do business in.

Customers visit the stores not only to get fresh baked goods from the panadería or tortilleria, alongside grocery items, but also non-food related offerings.

It offers financial services like money transfers and small loans through Prospera Gonzalez locations embedded in its stores, and the grocer is looking to expand urgent care offerings that are currently being tested at a store in its Riverside location.

“Our supermarkets are portals for health and wellness, not only in terms of access to fresh and organic foods, but also in terms of education and providing comprehensive information within our stores,” said Oscar González, who serves as co-CEO of the grocer.

The company’s community-building efforts in its stores and in the areas it serves stood out during 2020, with more than $650,000 donated to various partnerships impacting families throughout Southern California.

Efforts also went beyond money donations.

The company this year donated food to families impacted by COVID via voucher programs, offered up its delivery fleet for pandemic-related uses, held food drives, provided more than 5,000 meals to frontline staff at local hospitals, donated more than 50,000 bags of tortillas and handed out more than 45,000 toys for the holidays last week.

When the state’s stay-at-home order first went into effect earlier this year, Northgate González was the first in the area to offer early bird hours for the elderly, disabled, and pregnant women.

For those reasons, Northgate González earned a nod as one of five winners in the Business Journal’s inaugural Companies That Care awards.

The winners were selected by the paper’s editorial team out of the 88 nominees who are highlighted in this edition.

More than Supermarkets

The company’s successes are symbolic of a much larger story, say industry watchers.

“Today with 41 supermarkets, they are the titans in the Latino grocery store industry and are the catalyst in assisting many others to achieve the American dream,” Latino Food Industry Association Board Chair Ruben Smith said in a statement.

For others, the company’s efforts are a study in grocery retailing, and where it’s going.

Health and wellness, faith and education are the pillars guiding Northgate González community outreach, Oscar González said.

That philosophy largely explains how the retailer has been able to evolve each of its locations over the years into more than places to simply buy food.

“What drives us to open in those underserved communities under our value system and guiding principles, servant leadership is at the very top and I think our desire to serve is a big part of what drives us as an organization and the family,” González said.

To that end, the medical clinic under the Bienestar (which translates to wellness) platform has been in testing mode for the past year at the company’s Riverside store. There, urgent care services are provided, in addition to access to supplements and wellness education.

In the second quarter of 2021, the company is set to open a Costa Mesa store that will also include Bienestar. The plan is to eventually roll that out to the broader retail fleet in the future.

Although in-store mammograms and seminars (some, such as cooking, have been taken virtual) have stalled with COVID-related restrictions, those have also come to define the Northgate González shopping experience and will eventually come back post-pandemic shelter-in-place orders, González said.

Looking Ahead

Next year, in addition to Costa Mesa, Northgate González will open a store in South Gate, also slated for a second-quarter debut.

“We’re very ambitious and excited about continued store growth in the future,” González said. “Our growth, particularly in the next five years, will continue to be in the four counties we operate in today: Orange County, Los Angeles, San Diego and the Inland Empire.”

Timed with all of that, Northgate will look to leverage technology in a bid to enhance its services.

The company sped up plans for its Pronto curbside pick-up service, which will be piloted at six stores in the next three months.

The company also works with Shipt and Instacart on delivery options for customers looking to avoid in-store shopping.

E-commerce has spiked some 3,000% this year due to the changes in shopping stemming from the pandemic. While online is still a small part of the overall business, the pandemic magnified a growing opportunity in e-commerce.

At the end of the day, Northgate González still sees the in-store experience being just as important as it always has.

“Providing an exceptional customer experience in our stores is a point of differentiation and I think we really believe in personal touch,” González said.

“We want to augment the experience with what is called omnichannel access. So, yes, we want to improve the experience with the use of technology, but at the core of our merchant passion, the customer experience in our stores is something we continue to believe in and continue to invest in.”

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