May 14. 2012 9:00AM - Last modified: May 15. 2012 5:55AM

Regional Spirit Award Winner: Sendik's Food Markets

Applause!: Bravo! Entrepreneur Award


Sendik’s Food Markets

5623 N. Lake Dr., Whitefish Bay

In 1926, a family of Sicilian immigrants began peddling fruits and vegetables on Milwaukee's lower east side. Traveling by horse-drawn wagon and quickly gaining a reputation for quality, residents began flocking to the cart painted with the name "Sendik," to bring home fresh produce to their families.

Twenty years later, Thomas Balistreri helped Sendik's find a more stable home with a store in Whitefish Bay. Together with sons, Ted and Tom Jr., the store expanded, adding a full line of groceries along with meat, deli, dairy, baker, wine and spirits.

Today, Sendik's Food Markets has more than 10 locations in southeastern Wisconsin, including its newest store in West Bend and stores in Wauwatosa, New Berlin, Mequon, Franklin and Grafton. Thomas Balistreri's original store still stands in Whitefish Bay.

In 2001, Tom Balistreri Jr. sold his interest in the business. The company is now owned by Ted's sons, Ted, Patrick and Nick, and his daugther, Margaret Harris. The group has taken the neighborhood grocery and transformed it into a regionally recognized brand.

"Grandpa did a really great job creating the brand and my father, as well," said current owner Ted Balistreri. "But, it can only be done with really great customers. We know what they like, and we deliver," he added, alluding to the store's motto.

The store's emphasis on staying local, its high quality and competitive prices have created lifetime customers, allowing the company to stand against the competition.

"With all of these chains, we're doing business against some of the biggest (grocery retailers) in the world," Balistreri said. "But, we're completely independent. We live here. We're not owned by a private investment firm. We don't live out of state. We're not publicly traded. We are local."

Sendik's customers do more than buy food at the company's stores, Balistreri said. They become a part of the Sendik's culture.

The company continues to have the feel of a neighborhood grocer, but has managed to stay innovative. Whether it's through social media, blogs or by launching their Sendik's private label line and quarterly magazine, "Real Food," Sendik's always finds ways to help customers stay connected, Balistreri said.

"We're living in an age where people don't always engage," he said. "We want to make food shopping fun for people. You get instant feedback."

And how about that famous red bag? The hefty tote has become ubiquitous with the Sendik's brand.

According to Balistreri, Margaret was in an airport out-of-state when she saw a woman hauling belongings in a Sendik's bag. For the company, it made sense to start marketing something that people were already using after they put their groceries away. The Sendik's stores receive dozens of pictures from people using the bags at home, on trips, and at family functions. The company prints a selection of the photos in a feature called "Where in the World is Sendik's."

People may be taking the famous red bag all over the world, but Sendik's remains committed to the local community. Part of the company's long-standing success has stemmed from its involvement in the region.

In addition to sponsoring local events, like parades and festivals, the company has contributed to a number of charities, including Pensfield Children's Center, the MAAC fund, After Breast Cancer Diagnosis (ABCD) and Feeding America.

"It's always great when we are the highlight of someone's day," Balistreri said. "We want to keep being Milwaukee's homegrown food supplier. That's really special." n


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