The more things change, the more they stay the same. But there are certain things that never go out of style.
Service, loyalty and familiarity are the values upon which Zweier’s has built its business. Those standards have produced more than a half-century’s longevity so far, and allowed Zweier’s to become what is believed to be the last locally-owned and operated grocery store in Lebanon County.
While the past two years have been some of the most tumultuous in its history, Zweier’s has rebounded to become just as good as it was before, because of those values. Zweier’s has become a staple of the community—especially in south Lebanon—and not just because of its milk, bread and eggs.
“Right now, I’d say nobody,” said owner Gary Gristick, Sr., when asked to identify his local, family-owned competition. “This is really the only one, owned and operated by people who live here in Lebanon. Yeah, there’s some pride in that. My grandpa had a store in Lebanon, so it’s nice to keep the Gristick name going in the business.
“Family stores are few and far between,” continued Gristick. “It’s a very chain-dominated business. Mom-and-pop stores are a thing of the past. I know a lot of my customers by name. It makes them feel good. I don’t know if they’re getting that kind of service at bigger stores.”
The new, old Zweier’s, located at 505 South Lincoln Avenue, is about a year and a half removed from a three-month closing that nearly doomed the local grocer.
After the business had been sold to a former employee, the Gristick family again took over the operation and management of Zweier’s, in December of 2017. Following some tweaking, new additions and minor adjustments, Zweier’s is now very close to the level of business that it had previously enjoyed.
But the process was slow, especially at first.
“It was hard. We’re (he and wife Sue) semi-retired,” said Gristick. “It definitely wasn’t a full-time job, but we still had to come in twice a day. We own the building, so we were still the landlord and we needed someone to pay the rent. It’s part of the business.
“We’re doing more (business) now than when we sold it,” Gristick continued. “We’re close to the most we ever did. It was run down pretty hard. It gave people three months to go somewhere else. There’s competition everywhere. It’s a tough business. There’s small profit-margins and a lot of competition.”
The Gristicks originally purchased Zweier’s in 1996, from Tom Zweier, son of the grocery store’s founders, Curt and Marie Zweier. At that time, Gristick also owned Foodland, on North Seventh Street in the city, which he sold in 2011.
Zweier’s was built in the 1960s, then underwent a major renovation in the ‘70s.
“It was in the Zweier family forever,” said Gristick. “I think it’s over a hundred years that a Zweier’s market has been in Lebanon. There’s quite a bit of history with Zweier’s. That’s why I kept the same name. That’s what everyone knows it as.
“Some of our customers have been coming here for years,” added Gristick. “We have a good mix of older and younger customers. It’s a good location. It’s a nice part of town. They’re building homes everywhere.”
In its deli, Zweier’s makes 25-30 different kinds of salads, many of which are from recipes first developed by Marie Zweier. Zweier’s also prides itself on its in-store smoked meats, its local produce and home grocery-delivery service.
Just further proof that Zweier’s is as local as a grocery store in Lebanon can be.
“Stores like this don’t survive on groceries,” said Gristick. “The perimeter of the store is where you make money. That’s where you have to be good, there and places like the bakery, the meats, the deli and the produce. We buy local produce, and when I say ‘local’, I mean Lebanon. And we try to support other local businesses.
“We’re a friendly, neighborhood market,” Gristick added. “We have a clean store with competitive prices. But sometimes it’s hard to be small. People think big is cheap.”
When Gristick opened Zweier’s for the second time, there were no guarantees that the store’s success would equal his initial run. But he has tried to control the things he can control.
“The amount of business we’re doing a year and a half later, given the circumstances, it’s remarkable,” said Gristick. “Some people didn’t even know we were open again. Finally, it’s starting to really pick up again. When we opened the doors on that first day, it was like, ‘Who knows?’ But every two or three months it’s (business) been going up.
“We’re definitely way over the hump,” Gristick continued. “We’re not going anywhere. I think we’ll eventually do more business than we ever did. Our biggest challenge now is keeping good employees.”
Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart. It entails hard work, a can-do attitude and a handle on the concept of risk-reward.
“I worked for a grocery wholesaler for ten years,” said Gristick of AWI in Robesonia. “I was driving around with my boss one day and he said, ‘There’s a store for sale in Lebanon. Are you interested?’ And I said, ‘yeah’. I had never worked in retail. But I was always a risk-taker. You’ve got to take risks in life.
“You’ve got to be outgoing, and you’ve got to work,” continued Gristick. “It’s not a nine-to-five job. It’s longer hours. And it’s weekends and evenings.”
So at this point, Zweier’s future is as bright as it’s ever been. What status quo means to Gristick is continued growth, and perhaps the involvement of the next generation.
“If the boys would want to take over, that would be my first option,” said Gristick of sons Gary, Jr. and Zach. “They’re very good at knowing the business. We’ve talked about it, but I never want to put pressure on them. If I ever turned the business over, I would want it to be to them.
“My favorite part of the whole thing is working with my sons and wife,” added Gristick, “and seeing people come back when we reopened. It’s nice to see them. We’ve done something right.”
By taking care of the little things, the big things have taken care of themselves.