By Patricia Abbate
Wellesley –If you live in one of the suburban communities in Greater Boston, Metro-West or Southeastern Massachusetts, you’re probably familiar with the Roche Bros. regional chain of supermarkets. Boasting 17 stores, including two Sudbury Farms locations and operating an additional three neighborhood concept markets – Brothers Marketplace – commitment to family values and a passion for great food and great customer service has always set them apart.
In 1952, brothers Pat and Bud Roche opened a butcher shop in Roslindale, then quickly added fresh produce to their offerings and soon expanded to include a full grocery department. Growth was on the horizon for the brothers, as they sensed opportunity calling as the post WWII population moved away from cities and began building up the suburbs with brand new communities. In 1959, Pat and Bud opened a grocery store in Needham and another in West Roxbury in 1967. More suburban-based Roche Bros. were in the works.
As a high school student in Westwood, I heard the buzz around town that a big new grocery store was scheduled to open on Washington Street in 1970, and I wanted to work there. In fact, most high school kids from Westwood and neighboring towns filled out work applications in hopes of getting hired, but the competition was intense, so I was thrilled to become a cashier at the brand new facility. It was the first Roche Bros. to incorporate a “department” concept of merchandising, with a bakery, floral department, and a full-service restaurant. Within three months I was promoted to the cash office and would spend my high school and college years behind that courtesy booth with my high school friends. My sister Kati, now a nurse and retired naval officer, worked the grill at the restaurant. Both of us still have many friends from those years at Roche Bros., as through the camaraderie we shared, we became family, and still stay in touch.
Pat and Bud Roche created the tone and the pace for the cheerful and productive environment of their business, always setting an example and investing in their “family” of employees. They toured each of their stores on a regular basis, rushing through the front doors with captivating flourish and the panache of a seasoned politician — arms waving, broad smiles, calling out hellos to each of us individually, by name. We received higher than average wages, and even part-time student employees could count on vacation pay and a profit sharing check each year back then. Our on-the-job training was top-notch and our managers were great role models. Pat and Bud’s community involvement was unmatched, as they supported every youth and need-based cause in the area, a display of selfless philanthropy not lost on their employees and customers. The much-anticipated annual holiday party was not only a fun, dress-up occasion, but served as an opportunity for management to recognize employee service by expressing appreciation with genuine thanks and tangible awards. It was a feel-good event we shared with our family of co-workers. If we had viable suggestions, Pat and Bud listened and often acted on our ideas. At my urging, they supported my desire to write, design, publish, and distribute an employee newsletter – the Roche. Bros Register. Although an amateur attempt at journalism, it fueled my creativity, boosted my confidence, and opened the door for a peek inside the executive offices. As a young person, this first experience in the professional world of work would instill in me and my young colleagues a deep commitment to customer service, a desire to excel as a representative of a service-oriented business, and a genuinely strong work ethic – all attributes that have served me well in my professional career and private life.
By 1981, the year Pat’s son Rick graduated from Boston College, the brothers had expanded to five stores, with the addition of Natick and Wellesley. That’s when Rick went to work for the family business. Now the company’s CEO, there was no short cut to the executive suite for Rick, as he worked from the ground up. “I started in the grocery department right after college graduation. It was a least ten years before I got operations management training.”
After Pat and Bud stepped away from the business, brothers Rick and Ed took the helm, and now the third generation is on the threshold, as Rick’s daughter Caitlin is next in line. “She’s transitioning into the business,” he says with pride.
According to Rick, a well-executed transition plan is firmly in place, so Caitlin’s movement into the top position will be smooth. He says, “We have great people, and I let them run the business. I don’t want my daughter to worry about that. Our leadership team is in sync, both operations and merchandise, and they are doing a great job. I trust them.”
Rick has plans to semi-retire in the next few years — perhaps to spend more time on his passion for writing at his Cape Cod retreat –and his brother Ed is way ahead of him on that front, already in retirement mode.
The second generation brothers have shepherded the business through many years of rapid growth, responding to market trends and needs, innovating and being creative, and in some cases, taking on calculated risk.
The opening of their store in Boston–the first full-service grocery store in the city’s downtown– has been successful since opening in 2015, as a shift from the suburbs back to the city dwelling was taking place. “There is lots of foot traffic there. We have loyal and long-term customers, and we really appreciate them,” he says.
And with the recent addition of three Brothers Marketplace stores, Rick notes, “Brothers is a reaction to where the grocery business has gone in the past five years. When you have Amazon delivering everything to your door that we used to sell in the middle of the store, you don’t need as much floor space.” Brothers Marketplace has that neighborly feel, a place you can find locally-sourced fresh produce, artisan foods, a hand-picked selection of local products, prepared meals, catering services, and grocery essentials. “It’s like back to the future, closer to what Roslindale must have been like, the first story, and it’s pretty cool,” referring to his father and uncle’s first store that featured a butcher shop and local produce and groceries, the very items Brothers Marketplace offers. New Brothers stores will soon be opening in Duxbury and Cambridge, and are highly anticipated by their respective communities.
“We are weeding through some of the older, less profitable stores, and they’ll go away eventually, but what we do best, service and quality, will always be what we concentrate on. It’s what got us here today, so we’re expanding and contracting with that in mind,” he explains.
What’s the secret to their success? Rick grins, saying, “It’s always about the people, no matter what you do. If the people are not on track, it’s not going to work. If you take care of your employees first, they take care of the customer.” With more than 4,800 associates in its 20 stores, it’s more important than ever to keep the focus on the employees. Pat Roche always believed that good service comes from happy employees. The company has been on the Boston Globe’s list of the top 100 Boston-area places to work for as long at the list has existed. Rick’s dad adopted a common principle back in 1952, operating by the Golden Rule – to simply treat each other the way we would like to be treated – an operational philosophy that continues to serve the company well. As Rick professes, “It’s always about the people.” ∞
Reprinted from the April 2019 edition of the South Shore Senior News.