It’s early Saturday morning and the kids are still in bed. You want to make the family a big, hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, grits and toast. But much to your dismay, you open the refrigerator and see only two tiny eggs sitting there in the egg tray. There’s not much milk either. All of a sudden that big breakfast looks like it will take a trip to the grocery store—not exactly what you want to be doing first thing on a Saturday morning.
Luckily, there’s a brand new alternative to fighting the crowds and lines at the local supermarket when you just need a few quick items. It’s called Swiss Farms, and it’s the first drive-thru grocery store chain to come to the Charlotte area. The first location opened in mid-March at 1431 Sardis Road North, near the intersection with Monroe Road in the Crown Point area.
Swiss Farms drive-thru stores stock the grocery items most frequently needed by busy families—things like milk, bread, eggs, beverages, and packaged deli items. A Swiss Farms sales associate greets the customer at their car, takes the order, collects the items from inside the store, and handles payment. Since you don’t have to get out of the car, customers can dress as casually as they like, making those Saturday morning emergency grocery trips in your pajamas and slippers easier to take.
“We’re here to help moms cope with the time crunch that comes with growing families and demanding careers,” says Mike Lang, president of Lang Family Farms, the Charlotte metro franchise owner of Swiss Farms. “Our goal is to offer fast and friendly service with the feel of a neighborhood grocery store.”
From Philadelphia to Charlotte
Swiss Farms has been operating in the suburban Philadelphia area for over 40 years. Originally created in 1968 by Lebanon, Pennsylvania’s Wengert Dairy Farms to market fresh dairy products, Swiss Farms has expanded their offerings over the years to include other commonly used non-dairy grocery products.
In 2003, an investment firm acquired Swiss Farms from Wengert and has subsequently created a franchise model to facilitate expansion into new markets. The chain now operates 13 locations in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey.
Lang has been a successful entrepreneur and business owner for 24 years. He and his brother started a successful Philadelphia-based wireless electronics business in 1988 and he subsequently launched an Internet company in 1993. After selling the Internet business and buying out his brother’s share of the wireless company in 1997, Lang ran the business himself for nine more years.
“I was doing a lot of traveling—excessive traveling,” he admits. In 2006, Lang sold his company.
He moved his family to Charlotte. “My wife and I have family in Charlotte, and we thought it would be a great place to raise our kids. I wanted to find a business that was unique, fun, community-oriented, and I didn’t want to travel any more.”
So when Lang heard that Swiss Farms was starting a franchising program, he thought that could be a perfect fit.
“My wife and I grew up with these stores in Philadelphia, so it was always something that I thought world work well in Charlotte,” says Lang. “I like creating things from nothing and doing things that no one else is doing.”
He approached Swiss Farms, and in early 2011 signed on as the charter franchisee to bring the Swiss Farms concept to Charlotte. The new Sardis Road North store shares the parking lot of the Crown Point Stadium 12 Cinemas and opened for business on March 15.
“They say it usually takes about 18 months to get your first store up and running, but we got it done in 13,” beams Lang, who hopes to open a second location in the Lake Norman area before year-end.
America’s Drive-Thru Grocer
Lang points out Swiss Farms also caters to moms on the go with kids in the car, offering them the simplicity and convenience of grocery shopping without the need to get everyone out of the car. He says the concept is also well received by seniors who may not want to park and walk from the parking lot into a large grocery store. Swiss Farms may not replace the weekly trip to buy groceries, but will offer a convenient alternative for quick “fill-in” needs.
Swiss Farms is open from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. seven days a week and stocks an inventory of about 800 products. By comparison, a typical grocery store might carry 45,000 to 50,000 different items. Swiss Farms focuses on the items that might typically be purchased in the express lane at a supermarket—things such as milk, bread, butter and eggs.
Each Swiss Farms store also carries an assortment of beverages, packaged deli items, baked goods, ice cream, frozen pizzas, snack items, and general merchandise such as paper towels and toilet paper. Propane tank exchanges are also available and the Charlotte Swiss Farms locations will be the first to sell beer and wine.
Swiss Farms claims they offer about 80 percent of the top 100 items that are typically sold through supermarket express lanes. “We don’t have everything – just the things you need,” says Lang.
In Pennsylvania, Swiss Farms built its reputation on fresh dairy products, so the Charlotte locations will continue that tradition. Lang has contracted with a dairy in Asheville to provide hormone-free milk products under the Sealtest brand. The new store will also feature the Swiss Farms-branded teas that have become a long time favorite of customers in the northeast.
The inventory kept in each store is modeled after the existing locations up north, but Lang says they’ve made adjustments for the local market. “Here we must have Duke’s mayonnaise. They don’t have that up north,” he explains. “We also carry Sun Drop and Cheerwine, pulled pork, grits, and collard greens—things that resonate down here but not up north.”
Each Swiss Farms location also features a small kitchen that prepares hot take-home foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Charlotte menu is designed to cater to local tastes and includes country ham and eggs for breakfast, pulled chicken barbeque sandwiches at lunch, and Carolina Style pulled pork, catfish and meatloaf for dinner. Sides include macaroni and cheese, collard greens and mashed potatoes.
Swiss Farms only serves drive-thru customers, so the stores are not designed for walk-ins. The Sardis location features two lanes—one on each side of the 1,380-square-foot building. But with two doors on each side, four vehicles can be served at once. Each vehicle is greeted in person by a sales associate who takes the order, answers any questions, and reminds the customer of specials, which are also prominently displayed in the store’s windows.
The order is quickly filled and bagged, credit card or cash accepted, and the customer sent on their way. According to Lang, the average service time should be about a minute to a minute and a half, depending on the time of day. In Pennsylvania, Swiss Farms stores serve as many as 500 to 600 cars per day and they appear to be off to a great start in Charlotte.
“We did 250 cars on our very first day and we didn’t open until 10:30 a.m. instead of our typical opening at 6 a.m.,” Lang offers proudly.
According to Lang, the typical Swiss Farms customer will spend $8 to $10 per visit and buy three to five items, a much smaller purchase than a typical grocery store visit. But despite these numbers, Swiss Farms view themselves more as a grocer than as a convenience store. As such, they want to be price competitive with the grocery chains rather than higher-priced convenience stores.
“We definitely price more like a grocer than a convenience store,” Lang concedes. “The convenience has value but we think we have to price really close to what the grocery stores are doing. Typically if you buy something from a convenience store, you are likely going to consume it within the next 30 minutes or so. At Swiss Farms, we’re selling grocery items that are probably going to be taken home and prepared.”
Swiss Farms faces intense competition for the grocery dollar at this first Charlotte location. Harris Teeter, Food Lion and a Wal-Mart Supercenter occupy the other three corners of the same intersection. Why would anyone choose to locate a new store concept so close to the bigger, more established competitors? According to Lang, the reason is they are not really competitors at all.
“We view our market as fill-in purchases, not the major grocery shopping trip,” he explains. “If someone is going to go grocery shopping and needs a lot of items, they are going to go to the grocery store. We understand that.”
Growing Into the Community
With the first store opening behind them, Lang and Swiss Farms are already looking to expand their presence throughout the Charlotte region.
“We think the Charlotte market can accommodate between 10 and 12 of these units, strategically placed,” says Mike. “As Charlotte grows that number will probably grow, but for us it’s about doing our homework and finding the right parcels that work for us.”
The second location is slated to open by the end of 2012 in the Lake Norman area on Brawley School Road in Mooresville. Future sites will be chosen based on the right demographics, density, traffic counts, visibility, and most importantly, easy in-and-out access by car.
Swiss Farms only needs a half-acre to build a store, opening up a large number of parcels not available to other retail businesses that require more parking spaces to accommodate walk-in traffic. Lang hopes to open up to two stores per year over the next five years.
As Swiss Farms grows in the Charlotte area, Lang wants to be an integral part of every community in which he operates a store. “Our vision is for Swiss Farms to be deeply ingrained in the community as a neighborhood store,” he remarks. “We are reaching out to schools and neighborhood groups to get involved in community life.”
For their Grand Opening celebration last month, Lang hosted the Act 1 theater group from Charlotte Christian School who washed windshields on-site with Swiss Farms donating $2 for every windshield cleaned. Proceeds went to help the group fund their spring production of West Side Story.
Lang hopes to have one community event at the stores each month. At the Sardis store, that will be the first Saturday of every month. “We are really focused on being part of the community and want to be able to do things together—whether it’s a school group, the Boy Scouts, or wherever there is a good cause,” he explains. “We’re excited to be in Charlotte and ready to grow a business and have some fun doing it.”