Being vested in anything for a long period of time can result in a sense of showmanship, as well as a territorial nature. The expertise cultivated over time can leave one insulated rather than open, harsh rather than helpful.
But not Randy Gage.
“Might as well have a cup of coffee,” Randy says with a smile, waiting patiently for his computer to boot up in order to get his day started.
Randy is in the Co-op’s administrative offices on a typical busy day. He is tall and thin—still lean even after decades in the food business—with a soft-spoken nature that belies his eager laugh and gregarious sense of humor.
Maybe his affable reputation has something to do with the disarming boyish charm, the above-and-beyond customer service ethic, or the positive connection he has built with so many members, customers, and coworkers over time.
Maybe it’s just something about the red hair.
Whatever it is, Randy—known to colleagues as “Gager” or “Red Dog”—has an unmistakable mystique that’s unique by any measure. He is both capable and kind, with a folksy expertise that harkens back to the time of the friendly and knowledgeable neighborhood grocer. He even fits the part visually—selected once as a model for the grocer in the Co-op’s historical mural mounted on the wall of the Hanover store and spending years happily wearing a tie beneath his grocer’s apron.
“That was the official dress code for a long time,” Randy says, laughing about the comparison to today’s t-shirts and jeans. “Times have sure changed.”
Neckties and High Standards
As a long-time Merchandiser, Randy’s myriad responsibilities revolve around ensuring that Co-op customers get the products they want at prices that are both fair and affordable—all in one of the most competitive industries imaginable. It’s a tall order that tends to foster employee turnover more than retention, making a long-time employee like Randy even more special and valuable to his customers and coworkers.
“I started in 1976—the week after Thanksgiving,” Randy says, staring into space as if envisioning walking in on his first day. “I was 20 years old. I had just spent the past four years working for what was then the P&C store in White River Junction.”
What goes around comes around. The former White River Junction P&C is now the newest Co-op food store, and Randy spent many hours in the summer of 2010 at his old location—helping to bring the former chain store up to the high standards required to be part of the Co-op.
For Randy, such a task was nothing new. High standards and cooperation have been the hallmark of his career from the beginning and a fact of Co-op life he enjoys reminiscing about whenever he gets the chance.
“It was sure different back in the old days, but everyone still worked together,” he says. “A co-op is still a co-op, you know? Old or new.”
When he started, the basement of the Hanover store was like a warehouse. In those days staff would do one large order per week. Cases of items were popular, and members would stock up on essentials. On Saturday night, an employee would walk through the basement with an order sheet, clip board, pen, and paper. He or she would simply mark items that were running low and put in a new order.
“Arthur Gerstenberger, the Co-op General Manager at the time, would be there waiting when the big grocery order came in,” Randy says. “He’d roll up his sleeves, and we would, too. We would set up stations in the basement, and the cases would go around the basement on an elevated track like a train. Then we’d stack it all up. Just like at a warehouse.”
Much has changed at the Co-op since then. Today, the Hanover store is undergoing an epic facelift—a long-overdue, $5.3 million renovation project that was approved by members in the spring of 2014. The single food store that made up the Co-op in Randy’s early days has now been joined by two others, as well as an environmentally friendly, state-of-the-art Community Market; a Commissary Kitchen; an auto service center; and off-site administrative offices. Orders and inventory are a daily affair, with scores of employees and high-tech computer systems processing the flow of product, as well as everything else.
Still, Randy likes to point out that things that made the Co-op special before still exist today. Employees get to know their customers by name. The Cooperative Principles and Values still dictate policy. Supporting local is as much the focus today as it ever was. Employees still act as buying agents for their members rather than selling agents for an outside vendor or processor. And the General Manager still rolls up his sleeves to bag groceries or shovel snow or whatever else might be necessary.
“A lot is still the same, and there have been a lot of improvements too,” Randy says. “Still, there’s a lot about the old days I miss.”
Even wearing a tie?
“Well, maybe not that,” he says with a smile—and disarming boyish charm.
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