In an era of bag-your-own, robo-teller grocery shopping, where customer service is little more than a quaint memory, there are still locally owned stores that serve old-fashioned, in-person customer service, like Leppink’s.
With locations in Belding, Lakeview, Stanton, Howard City and Ferrysburg, Leppink’s represents a throwback to a better time, when service was king and the customer’s needs came first.
According to Ransom Leppink, whose grandfather, John Leppink, opened the first Leppink’s market in 1939, running a small town grocery requires not just a good understanding of the local customer base, but also a desire to help the community grow and thrive. It is this connection to each location’s hometown, Ransom said, that makes all the difference.
A longtime Lakeview resident, Ransom owns the Leppink’s store there, as well as the Stanton store. Cousins John Leppink and Rich Cole own the Belding, Howard City and Ferrysburg locations.
“We’ll be celebrating our 85th anniversary this year,” Ransom said. “My grandfather started out back in the ’30s with a slaughterhouse in Belding.”
That operation slowly morphed into a butcher’s shop, which soon added dry goods and eventually became the first Leppink’s grocery.
“There’s all kinds of stories I heard as a kid,” Ransom said. “About how they would run the slaughterhouse one night a week and then sell those animals in the meat market for the rest of the week.
“I used to constantly hear the stories about back in the day when our fathers were younger and worked with their dads dressing every turkey they sold for Thanksgiving. Dressing poultry is hard, awful work; plucking all those feathers. It’s an awful job.”
Eventually, the slaughterhouse was closed and the space used to expand the supermarket.
The downtown Lakeview location was purchased in the early 1960s and relocated to the south end of town about 18 months later, where it remains today. The most recent link in the Leppink’s chain was added in the early 1980s, when the Ferrysburg store was built.
Though all individually owned, Ransom said the Leppink’s stores share a similar philosophy; to provide competitive prices in a customer-oriented environment.
“We’re very price-competitive,” Ransom said. “We provide excellent specials. But more importantly, we’re deeply invested in the community. We try to be very supportive of local schools, service organizations and churches.”
It’s not uncommon to see the Lion’s Club or Jaycees selling brats in front of Leppink’s, grilling on a cooker provided by the store. Similarly, many area churches set up bake sales or other fundraising efforts just inside the store’s main entrance.
Ransom doesn’t consider this sort of thing to be a “big deal,” though similar efforts are all but unheard of at most big box stores.
“It’s just part of being a part of the community,” Ransom said. “Right now, Leppink’s is on its third generation running the show, and on my cousins’ side, we’ve even got some fourth generation family members that are choosing it as a career. It’s kind of exciting.”
Dave Wills, store director of the Stanton location, agrees that it is the community interaction that makes Leppink’s a genuine asset to the villages in which they are located.
Dave started with the chain in 1980 as a carryout boy and worked his way up to the grocery manager’s position and, eventually, store director. Following his father’s advice, that “people have to eat,” Dave has stayed with the job ever since.
“It’s been great,” Dave said. “Working in retail is probably more exciting than people realize. Every day is different. You get to wear a lot of different hats: maintenance, public relations … you meet a lot of people and make a lot of friends.”
Both of Dave’s sons worked in the store during their school years, and other friends and relatives also have been on staff over the years.
Dave takes his role as Leppink’s community liaison seriously, going so far as to personally take part in Stanton’s Old Fashioned Days and the mid-winter “Polar Plunge.”
“We raise a lot of money for the community with that one,” Dave said. “It’s a pretty big deal. We try to help out the community as much as we can.”
With the store chain celebrating its 85th birthday, Leppink’s managers and owners have many special events planned throughout the year. It’s just their way, Ransom said, of thanking the communities that have supported the stores for so long.