I didn’t know Jim Hiller when I emailed him in late 2007, saying that I had a hunch that I could help the family-owned grocery chain. I felt like I knew him, but we had never met, and I felt that way because the Hiller name was so familiar in my community, it felt like an extension of my family.
When I made the transition from full-time journalist to public relations pro, Hiller’s Markets became my first client. We started small and grew into intense everything-goes, really fun working together where words mattered and human connection was king.
So yesterday, when it was announced that The Kroger Co. bought the 7 Hiller’s grocery stores in Southeast Michigan, you can imagine my phone blew up with friends and acquaintances asking for my take on the situation.
It’s a business decision. Plain and simple. And I’m happy for my former client and mentor that he found a solution for his one-of-a-kind company.
I learned a lot working with Hiller’s, about myself and about the power of PR. I already knew how food can connect people, and open you to the world. Working with Hiller’s confirmed my instincts that the best way to build business is to make a connection.
Together, we told stories: on TV, in the paper, on the radio, online. We created events where people could walk through the store and linger over tastings and learn about the people behind the products on the shelves. When you learn that pickles are created from the recipe of two guys’ grandparents, you’re more likely to compassionately take a bite and if you like them, feel proud to support a local family business.
When you see the enthusiasm on someone’s face because their dream-come-true is bottled for you, you like the flavor a little bit more. And when you know that the people behind the meat counter are treated really well by their employer, and they’ll cut your brisket shave-thin for you so your family remarks over the buttery-ness of your dinner, you appreciate the store a little more.
The grocery business is a tough one. Stores abound and margins are slim. And sometimes, you just have to let business evolve.
I remember one summer night, my eldest son (age 6 at the time) and I rose at 1 a.m., got dressed and drove to the Hiller’s main office. From there, the head of the produce division, a sweet older Italian man, drove us down to the Produce Terminal to see the world that is wide awake while the rest of us sleep, the people who proffer produce so we can have fresh mangoes and apples by 8 a.m.
It was a world vibrant with color and smiles, where my kid was offered fruit that he eagerly took (and a hot chocolate because it was cool at that hour). We saw the inner workings of our city, of the way things happen for our enjoyment, our ease. We learned how hard people work to make things possible for everybody else.
After the brightly-lit Produce Terminal teeming with middle-of-the-night energy, we went to Eastern Market, the wholesale neighborhood of meat processors and produce vendors where my great-grandfather ran his own company many decades before. We watched the deals happen and the produce being loaded onto semi-trucks to get to the seven Hiller’s stores before dawn.
When we returned home at about 6 a.m., we were dreamily tired, but satisfied. We had an unusual opportunity to glimpse behind the scenes and learn a little more how the world works. All because of the generosity of a few people.
I wrote about that of course and have reflected on that experience many times. What Hiller’s represents for me all these years is the possibilities in life.
I approached a man I didn’t know and said give me a chance. He did, and I thrived in the creative relationship that flourished for two years. We told stories around and about food, and how people make meaning in life. We promoted a business built on family and connection and caring.
I’m glad people thought of me yesterday when the news broke. It was a wonderful company to be linked to. And I’m sure the legacy will live on, no matter how the stores change. The end of an era, for sure, but perhaps the beginning of something new.