UVA Darden Alumni Steer Iconic Richmond Food Brand Through Growth and Transformation
By Dave Hendrick
Sometime in 2020, a Ukrop’s food hall will open in the West End neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, bringing fried chicken, potato wedges, White House Rolls, rainbow cookies and a variety of other beloved foodstuffs to a Ukrop-owned venue for the first time in a decade.
Depending on one’s geographic upbringing, the news likely elicits something like a shrug or an excited gasp. For the gaspers — a group with roots in Central Virginia — the news that many legendary items will be together under one roof for the first time since the Ukrop’s Super Markets chain was sold is a big deal, indeed.
It’s the latest evolution of a company that became synonymous with the grocery industry in Richmond — “a cultural touchstone for generations of local residents” as the company’s Wikipedia entry reads —growing from a single store to 26 across the region at the time of its sale to the global grocery conglomerate Royal Ahold for $140 million in 2009.
While Ukrop’s ceased to exist in its grocery store form after 2009, many members of the family behind the brand — a number of whom are alumni of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business — have continued to build on the business’ legacy of innovation and community involvement.
Robert “Bobby” Ukrop (MBA ‘72) and his son-in-law, Scott Aronson (MBA ’99), took many of the popular brands sold at Ukrop’s Super Markets and launched Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods, selling a variety of bakery items and prepared foods under brands including Ukrop’s, White House Rolls and Mrs. Marshall’s at major grocery chains, including Kroger, Harris Teeter, Food Lion, Publix and Wegmans, among others.
The company operates a food truck, runs a catering business, and is planning to open a food hall and retail market in the fall of 2020 where customers may purchase the best of what Ukrop’s has to offer.
In addition to Aronson and Ukrop, the list of immediate family members with Darden MBAs includes Aronson’s wife and Ukrop’s daughter, Jacquelin Aronson (MBA ’00), and Ukrop’s nephew Scott Ukrop (MBA ’89) and Scott Ukrop’s wife, Lilo Simmons Ukrop (MBA ’89).
All have pursued different professional paths. Scott Ukrop, a former Ukrop’s Super Markets executive is now a managing director of the venture capital firm NRV. Lilo Ukrop has founded multiple companies, is active with a variety of nonprofit groups and lectures frequently in classes at Darden, where she also serves on the Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees. In addition to independent pursuits, the family works together supporting a corporate apparel business called Ukrop’s Threads, providing uniforms to food retailers, theme parks, convenience store chains, and fast-casual restaurant chains.
There’s a common bond among the Darden graduates, even if it’s not always easy to articulate, Ukrop said during a recent stop he and Aronson made at the School.
“In terms of thought process among those of us who had the Darden experience, there’s an approach to thinking that is somewhat similar,” said Ukrop. “There’s a certain ability to communicate in a different manner than others who haven’t had the experience. It doesn’t mean it’s better, it’s just different.”
Said Aronson, “Darden provided a great business foundation and exposed all five family members to a variety of successful practice and business models. Although each of us have different areas of passion and approaches, even after several decades from our time on campus, you can still see how the Darden experience grounds our thinking and influences business decisions.”
Both said they routinely draw on lessons born in the classroom and credit Darden with instilling a longer-term view on business decisions — helping them to think beyond the specific goal or task at hand.
When Ukrop and Aronson continued on the next leg of their journey after the sale of the grocery stores, they had the confidence that Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods would work because they approached the business with the customers in mind foremost.
“We were never in the food business; we were in the customer service business and just happened to be selling food,” said Aronson. “Now the challenge is, so who’s the customer? When we were a grocery store, it was very clear. We had direct customers. Now it’s nuanced.”
Ukrop says selling to retail food customers remains the company’s “comfort zone,” although even years later, Ukrop says he often has to remind himself that someone else owns the stores, and if a package of White House Rolls is not displayed in an optimal manner, for instance, his options are limited.
“It’s less like being a parent and more like being a grandparent,” said Ukrop. “When we were in the grocery business operating our own stores, we could guide the ‘child’ directly. Today, we find ourselves more in the position of being influencers.”
The change from a business built on retail distribution to one built on a bedrock of manufacturing has also been a learning process, although Ukrop said the company has become “really good” at production during the last 44 years.
“We learned how to operate central manufacturing — make today, ship tonight, sell tomorrow,” said Ukrop. “That’s kind of our mantra.”
“It’s a new horizon as we think about this going forward — doing something differently,” said Aronson. “How we leverage the brand as we reinvent the business. Is it hard? Yes. Is it fun? Absolutely.”
Ukrop admitted there is some relief to no longer having to worry about some of the competitive dynamics in brick-and-mortar retail or the mayhem that snowstorms or power outages can unleash on a grocery store chain. However, he said he does miss some aspects of the supermarket business, particularly the daily interaction with the thousands of associates who were integral to the company’s success over the years.
“Our business provided a wonderful opportunity to serve and influence people from so many diverse backgrounds — from the thousands of young people working part-time while in school to those who were in their second and, sometimes, third careers. At one point, there were 170 associates working with us who were 70 to 79 years of age and 50 who were 80-plus,” said Ukrop. “The opportunity to make a small difference in so many people’s lives — whether it was their first job or last job — that’s something that we really do miss.”
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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