HUGHES EX-CHAIRMAN STARTING HOWS MARKETS

LOS ANGELES -- The former chairman of Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif., and three of that chain's former top executives are joining in a new retailing venture to open HOWS Markets, an upscale, consumer-friendly independent operation in southern California.The first store is scheduled to open May 5 in Granada Hills, an affluent area of the north San Fernando Valley; a second store is scheduled

LOS ANGELES -- The former chairman of Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif., and three of that chain's former top executives are joining in a new retailing venture to open HOWS Markets, an upscale, consumer-friendly independent operation in southern California.

The first store is scheduled to open May 5 in Granada Hills, an affluent area of the north San Fernando Valley; a second store is scheduled to open in June in Santa Clarita; and the company said other locations "are in the planning stages."

The company told SN it plans to open two stores a year, with a goal of 10 stores within five years. HOWS said it will not limit its expansion to any particular area, "but we want to find the right locations with the right demographics, from upscale to middle class," Mark Oerum, one of the partners, told SN.

"We want our stores to fall somewhere between a Ralphs or Vons and a Gelson's or Bristol Farms -- with a similar focus to Ralphs and Vons but not as pricey as Gelson's or Bristol Farms."

The venture is being headed by Roger K. Hughes, 64, general partner of Hughes Family Partnership, an investment company that primarily invests in stocks and bonds. Until his retirement in December 1997, Hughes was chairman and chief executive officer of the company founded by his father.

Hughes' partners are Oerum, 43, former vice president of store operations for Hughes; David Wolff, 42, former group vice president of deli, meat, bakery, service deli and fish for Hughes; and Steve Strickler, 40, chief financial officer of the Hughes Family Partnership and former vice president and corporate treasurer of Hughes.

HOWS is an acronym of their names. The company said it plans to build its reputation on customer service.

"With all of the megamergers in the food-retailing industry the past few years and continuing today, we felt it was time to offer the everyday customer the benefit of our years of experience and expertise in a neighborhood market based on quality and value," Hughes said. "We are confident the people of Granada Hills will be as happy with our entry into their neighborhood as they would welcome an old friend."

According to Wolff, "HOWS Markets prides itself on the service it provides to customers. We know we would not be in business without our customers, and we really want to service them."

Oerum told SN the stores will have "a lot of similarities with Hughes" -- including simple rather than ornate decor "that lets the products speak for themselves" -- "but we will do some things even better."

That will include a service meat counter in addition to packaged meat and service seafood and a stronger emphasis on produce, floral and other perishables. "We are laying out perishables around the perimeter first, then using whatever space is left for dry grocery," Oerum said.

The first HOWS Market in Granada Hills will be a 21,000-square-foot store located in a former Alpha Beta that's been vacant for a couple of years after an independent operator was unsuccessful there.

"It's a small store but a great location with a strong base of ex-Hughes customers," Oerum said. Hughes used to operate a store 2 miles away, he said, and the new team will make sure customers know who's behind the new venture, Oerum said, by including biographies of the four owners in the store's mailers.

The second HOWS Market will be located in a 41,000-square-foot former Ralphs in an area that encompasses shoppers from the high end to lower-middle class, Oerum said.

HOWS Markets will feature home delivery, free knife sharpening and banking services. It will be supplied by Certified Grocers of California, the locally based member-owned cooperative here.

The Hughes chain, established by the late Joseph P. Hughes in 1952, was sold to Quality Food Centers, Bellevue, Wash., in 1996. When QFC was acquired by Fred Meyer Inc., Portland, Ore., in 1997 along with Ralphs Grocery Co., Compton, Calif., the Hughes stores were absorbed by and rebannered as Ralphs.