Retailer Profile – Daniel Bell

Daniel Bell
Produce Buyer, Grocery Outlet

Daniel Bell believes he had the talent to pursue his dream of playing professional baseball but not the maturity when it came to a crossroads in his life.  Instead, he quit baseball and joined the ranks of the working class as a night clerk in the produce department of a North San Diego County Vons.

But he has no regrets as his life and career have dealt him a full hand of opportunities and advancement.

The journey began on Camp Pendleton Marine Base in 1967 as the newly born son of a Marine, who had served three tours of duty overseas, two of which were during the Vietnam War.  In fact, Daniel was the only one of a group of four children who was delivered while his father was not out fighting wars. Daniel grew up in nearby Carlsbad, CA, playing ball and living an ordinary life.  “I was the typical confused teenager,” he said.  “I played sports, surfed and fished.”

He was not an especially good student, and though he was an excellent baseball player, his lack of “due diligence” to his studies caused him to continue his post-high school baseball career at the local junior college.  A crossroads decision came when he hurt his knee and he disregarded the coach’s suggestion to redshirt (sit out) a year two before returning to the active roster.

“Though he was a good coach, I didn’t agree with him, “ Bell said.  “I was just too young to know what I should do.”

Bell said one of the hardest things he had to do was tell his dad he was quitting baseball.

But opportunity opened another door.  It was in 1990 that he started working at Vons.  To say it was love at first sight would be an exaggeration.  “I was told I wasn’t going to make it,” he said, speaking of one of his earliest evaluations.  “It was an older store staffed with slow starters and people on their last leg.  I was getting about 24 to 28 hours a week.”

His life changed when produce manager Fernando Terrazas took him to lunch.  He gave him a pep talk and made him a promise.  “He told me, ‘I’ll make sure you get the hours and you better come in whenever I call you.’”

The partnership worked.  “He gave me plenty of hours and I worked every time he asked.”

He got promoted to assistant produce manager and after a temporary setback because of a company-wide layoff, Bell found himself at the Del Mar store working with both Terrazas and Hector Avila, another produce manager that was instrumental in his job progression.  “That’s where I learned the craft of being a produce manager,” he said.

Over the next several years, Bell worked hard, shifted stores a couple of times and in 1996 was named produce manager of the store in Clairemont, a community within the city limits of San Diego.

He continued his upward mobility and eventually being named a produce manager in the La Jolla store.  “That was the crème de la crème,” he said, noting that it was a high-end store with lots of business and experimentation.

As the century turned, Vons soon became part of the Safeway family and Bell was very happy in his position.  “I had been talked to about being a merchandiser, but I was never interested.”

However, in 2006, Mil Mijanavic, who had worked with Bell at Vons and was involved with the Tom Thumb division of Safeway in Texas, gave Bell a call.  “He offered me a merchandiser position with the Texas division and explained exactly what he wanted to do and why I was the right guy for the job.”

Daniel and his wife, Aida, discussed the opportunity and decided it was the perfect time to take on a new challenge, as their three sons were all still relatively young.

In 2010, after close to five years in Texas and getting a great produce education, Bell was offered a position back in California with Grocery Outlet Bargain Markets in Northern California.  Again, the ages of his sons factored into the decision:  “My oldest son was about to enter high school so it was the perfect time to move.”

Bell was hired as a merchandiser/buyer and now is the produce buyer for California and Nevada.  “I manage sales margins, pricing, ads and selection for those stores,” he said.  “I also ‘own’ several commodities, including avocados, berries, grapes, citrus, tropical, pears and cherries, among others.”

Since soon after he came to California, Grocery Outlet has been in a growth spurt.  From 137 stores in 2010, there are now about 309 stores in six states: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Pennsylvania.  It is growing at a clip of 30 or more stores per year.  The company’s produce buying philosophy is the “deal always wins.”

While the retailer uses regular suppliers for its everyday needs, it also is always looking for that value buy that it can pass on to its owner-operators.  In the Grocery Outlet business model, each store is owned and run by an on-site and in-house owner.  It is typically a husband and wife team, who hires their own staff.  The contract with Grocery Outlet calls for the parent company to build the store and supply these owner-operators with merchandise.  “Our job is to buy, their job is to sell,” Bell quipped.

Grocery Outlet does allow the operators to manage their quantities, but they are encouraged to take advantage of the deals that the buyers come up with on a daily basis.  Bell said the produce team is constantly looking for that off-size piece of fruit or vegetable pack that can be bought at a discounted rate with the savings passed on to the consumer.  “We’re always looking for the deal,” Bell said, offering that recent sales include two-pound packs of rainbow peppers and organic strawberries.  Each could be sold at store-level for well under normal pricing.

Though Grocery Outlet is a discounter, Bell said its customers still want high-quality produce and are big buyers of organics and other specialty items.  Each store has a NOSH (natural, organic, specialty, healthy) section that features the latest on-trend organic category.

Daniel and Aida live in Roseville, CA and have three sons.  Twenty-two year old Xavier just graduated from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA, while Conor, 18, and Aidan, 14, are still in high school.  For fun, the family does a lot of outdoor activities, including hiking.  Bell heads down to San Diego every once in a while for 8-12 day fishing excursions, leaving from the local port.  “I love to fish,” he understates.