Passion for food business becomes a family affair

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Rudy Zupancic has been in the grocery business so long that he not only remembers the days before bar codes and scanners, he also can recall what it was like before price-tag stickers.

"Every item was hand-priced," he said. "We wrote the price on every item individually with a crayon, a crayon that was specially formulated to mark on tin cans."

Zupancic, 71, loves the grocery business so much that he has made it his career for 54 years and has made room in it for his children and grandchildren -- 13 family members in all.

He and his wife, Pat, now live in Collier, but they previously lived in Richland for 30 years and raised their five children there. And the grocery business seems to be in the blood -- the Zupancics and four of those five children own and operate four Giant Eagle supermarkets in the area. The stores are in Richland, Bridgeville, Moraine Pointe Plaza in Butler Township and Clearview Mall in Center.

On Sunday, the family held a grand opening for a new supermarket at their Richland location in Northtowne Square, leaving behind their smaller, older store at the opposite end of the shopping center.

The family company, Super Eight Corp., employs about 700 and has its headquarters in offices above the new store.

Zupancic started out in the business at the bottom of the ladder. "I began as a clerk and a gofer. I worked after school every day. I was 16 when I started," he said.

"It was always a back-of-my-mind wish, a dream, to go into business for myself," he said. "The best thing I could do for my children was to go into business."

He worked his way up through other grocery companies before talking Giant Eagle into selling him its Bridgeville location in 1986. He added the Richland location in 1992.

The biggest changes he has seen over the years have come in the area of technology and in the number and variety of products that a supermarket offers.

In the past, Zupancic said, a store might offer an assortment of 5,000 items. Today, that number is closer to 100,000, he said. And the offerings go well beyond bread, milk and other staples.

"We have sushi," he said of his newest store. "We have a worldwide foods aisle that has Thai foods. A few years ago 'imported foods' meant Italian only."

The new Richland store also has an old-fashioned soda fountain that concocts ice cream and seltzer delights.

Zupancic's children also started at the bottom and worked their way up in the business.

"We all did the floor work," said Zupancic's son, Wayne Zupancic, of Hampton, president and general manager of Super Eight Corp. "We have the ability to comfortably oversee everything," Wayne Zupancic said of the family business. "We have enough staff, good people we can depend on to get everything done."

And the next generation is coming along: Wayne's son, Brad Zupancic, 25, is manager of the store in Moraine Pointe Plaza, Butler Township.

A family business has its downside, however. Karen Zottola, Zupancic's daughter and vice president and general manager, said her dad expects his own brand of full-time devotion from each of them.

"He expects us to be prepared on any topic at any time. He doesn't stop. He'll call at 9 p.m. with a brainstorm, and he wants a response," she said. "He's always on."

Zupancic's two other daughters, Marilyn Zupancic and Laurene Verikas, manage Super Eight's finances. All three daughters live in Cranberry.Although he did not start out with Giant Eagle, Rudy Zupancic gives much credit for his success to the family-owned retailer, based in O'Hara.

"We ride along on their success. They're aggressive, and they're not bashful about spending money. Yet, their program allows you to do something unique, like the soda fountain," he said. The Zupancic family knows, however, that it's not only atmosphere that brings customers back but also attitude. The new Richland store employs nearly 300 people, 100 of whom are new hires. But at least 30 of the workers have been with Zupancic for 10 years or more.

"Long-term employees who know the business are part of the formula," said consultant Rick Goclano, who helps the Zupancic company with personnel matters. "People like shopping where they're treated well."


Jan Adam is a freelance writer.


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