The Grand Centenarian

Chanatry’s Market marks 100 years of servicing the Utica, N.Y. market.

The owners of Chanatry’s Market know the secret to surviving 100 years: Meat. Lots and lots of meat. That is because a strong meat business—coupled with outstanding customer service, stocking local products, offering competitive prices and giving back to the community—has enabled Chanatry’s Market to maintain a century of service to the upstate Utica, N.Y. community.

“We’re a store in transition,” Mark Chanatry, president, says, speaking of the store’s rapidly shrinking traditional Italian customer base. “We are basically trying to reinvent ourselves, but there is one constant. We’ve always used our meat as our leader. While most stores are shrinking the size of their full-service meat department we’re re-emphasizing it as the biggest full-service meat department in New York.”

That is not just Central New York, but all of New York State. “I haven’t seen anything bigger and I’ve been to New York City and all the way up to Buffalox,” Chanatry says. “We want to emphasize that when you come in here you can get any cut of meat, anytime of day.”

The service department is 60 feet, plus there is an additional 60 feet of multi-deck self-service cases. The assortment is so large, and the quality so outstanding, that customers regularly drive 25 miles or more from surrounding towns and villages to get their meats and specialty groceries.

Of course Chanatry’s is not the only supermarket to reach the century milestone; the Weis Markets chain is also celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and A&P was established in 1859. Chanatry’s, however, is unique in that it is a thriving one-unit unionized independent operating in a declining city against non-union competitors.

Generations of shoppers
“We have a loyal base, probably as loyal of a base as any supermarket in the country,” Chanatry says. “We’ve had people shopping here for 80 years. We have generations shopping here.”

“We insist that shopping at Chanatry’s must always be an adventure, a relaxing activity, a pleasant place of variety and abundance, and a store where the staff is friendly and helpful,” William “Bill” Chanatry, CEO and owner, said at a May 9 centennial celebration ceremony at the store that was attended by local politicians, dignitaries, vendors and hundreds of customers.

“We also recognize that Chanatry’s need not be the strongest to survive and prosper, not the most intelligent, but being the most flexible and adaptable to rapid changes that engulf us daily,” Chanatry said.

“What is unique about Chanatry’s is their loyalty to the community,” says Pamela G. Matt, Esq., executive director of the Utica-based Mohawk Valley Chamber of Commerce, who attended the event. “While we were honoring Chanatry’s, they took a moment to honor the House of Good Shepherd [foster child agency] by giving them a check for $6,000. I took a step back and thought that this is what this community is about.”

“Chanatry’s has done very well,” says Bob Horth, vice president of business development at Utica-based DeIorio’s, an 80-plus year-old bakery company that supplies Chanatry’s with some in-store bakery frozen dough items and pizza dough products. “It is nice to see the third generation now taking the reigns at the company,”

Chanatry Bros. was established on Bleecker Street in Utica in 1912 by Raymond, Michael (Bill’s dad) and Yorhaky Chanatry, immigrants from Aleppo, Syria, who fled to America to escape the Ottoman Empire and its massacres of Christian families. The little store quickly grew in popularity and in 1938 a 6,000-square-foot replacement store was opened on Bleecker Street that featured an additional 12,000 square feet of storage.

By World War II, Chanatry’s was recognized as Utica’s busiest supermarket. When the government froze prices and wages, the Office Price Administration (OPA) divided grocers into four classes based on sales. Chanatry’s was one of a few dozen stores in the whole country to be classified as an OPA 4, a store with the largest volume. “There were two stores in upstate New York—both in Utica—that sold more war bonds than anybody else, us and F.W. Woolworth,” Bill Chanatry tells Grocery Headquarters.

The store was so popular it was written up in Time magazine in 1944 and Better Homes & Gardens in 1946, when it won the Grocer of the Month Award.

Throughout its history Chanatry’s has held its own against competitors. A&P, Acme, Chicago Market, Great American, Grand Union and Penn Traffic/P&C are some of the supermarkets that Chanatry’s has outlived in Utica. It even survived the Utica Giant, a factory-size discounter that operated in the 1930s and sold groceries, dry goods, hardware and even automobiles.

Today’s competition is even stiffer. Chanatry’s competes against two Walmart Supercenters, three Aldi’s, Save-A-Lot and Price Chopper—all non-union. Yet Chanatry’s still averages volume between $375,000 and $400,000 a week.

A key benefit of belonging to the UFCW is being part of the union’s insurance plan. “The health care is killing us!” Chanatry says. “Luckily we do it through the UFCW.”

Supplied by Cheshire, Conn.-based Bozzuto’s, Chanatry’s offers about 48,000 square feet of groceries and stocks some 50,000 SKUs. In addition to national brands, the store specializes in ethnic products such as canned stuffed grape leaves, and local items, including Cora Italian products, Hoffman’s hot dogs and Saranac and Utica Club beer from Utica-based brewer F.X. Matt.

Chanatry’s also does a robust business in private label. In addition to Bozzuto’s Hy-Top and Top Care labels, the store has its own Chanatry’s and Janet’s Choice (named after Bill’s wife) line of sauces and spices. Sold in large plastic jars, the spices are merchandised from in a 12-foot set along the back wall.

Estate planning
Now in his 80s, Bill Chanatry has been grooming his son Mark to one day take full control of the store. “I have five kids and Mark is the only one that has shown an interest in the business,” he says. “I will be gifting shares of the business to all my kids, but immediately buy back the shares except for Mark. We will do this yearly and he will end up owning the business.”

Might Chanatry’s soon be opening branch stores? Don’t count on it.

“When Penn Traffic went out a store was made available to us in Rome (N.Y.),” Chanatry says. “I went through the numbers over and over. No matter how I crunched them I said we can’t come out of this. I didn’t want to take that risk to open another store in Rome, even though it would have been a nice fit. So Tops took over and they are not doing any better than Penn Traffic. I know I made the right decision,” he says.

Instead he is concentrating on investing in his existing physical plant, like replacing all of the compressors on the freezer cases with energy-efficient models.

“Until New York State restructures and there is some fiscal responsibility, it will be hard for us to expand,” says Mark Chanatry.

But don’t count the store out.

Chanatry’s expects to thrive into its second century by adapting to changing customer wants and needs in its central Upstate New York market. That necessitates constantly tailoring and tinkering with its product mix.  “I know we’ve lost a lot of center store sales to the Walmarts and Save-A-Lots,” Mark Chanatry says. “If this is the day and age of Whole Foods, we feel that we can do what Whole Foods is doing, but be more aggressive on price.”

Not that he’s worried about Whole Foods opening up and stealing his business anytime soon. “This area couldn’t support a Whole Foods,” Chanatry says.

Plus there is that famous Chanatry’s customer service. “We don’t skip on the quality,” Bill Chanatry says. “Our prices are very competitive, but the quality is remembered long after the price is gone.”

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