TROY COCHRAN: CREATING A COMMUNITY CENTER

WATERFORD, Calif. -- Troy Cochran used to oversee the IGA stores in Northern California for Fleming Cos., including Valley IGA, winner of one of IGA's Retailer of the Year awards in 1991.Today, he and his wife co-own the store, which has been rebuilt and expanded under the Valley IGA Plus banner.Cochran, 41, told SN his store received this year's IGA Retailer of the Year award because it serves as

WATERFORD, Calif. -- Troy Cochran used to oversee the IGA stores in Northern California for Fleming Cos., including Valley IGA, winner of one of IGA's Retailer of the Year awards in 1991.

Today, he and his wife co-own the store, which has been rebuilt and expanded under the Valley IGA Plus banner.

Cochran, 41, told SN his store received this year's IGA Retailer of the Year award because it serves as a community center for this small bedroom community in the San Joaquin Valley, located about 15 miles east of Modesto and 120 miles east of the San Francisco Bay area.

With an extensive service-counter offering and an expansive food court, Valley IGA Plus sees itself as a gathering place for most of the 7,000 people who live here. "We're pretty much the only place in town people can congregate," he explained.

Cochran said the store's status as a community center reflects comments Dr. Thomas S. Haggai, IGA president, made when the store opened in 1997. "Tom said it's a strong sense of community that makes IGA great because the chains can't act as quickly, nor can they be as involved in community events, and we try to live up to that idea.

"We give people whatever they want, or at least we try to. Unlike a chain, decisions don't have to pass through supervisors or be OK'd by committee. Our philosophy is, whatever it takes, just do it. The manager orders whatever customers want so they will stay here and shop with us."

Valley IGA Plus sponsors a variety of school and park-league teams, and donates IGA-label products to schools and churches to help them raise funds for various local events, Cochran said. The store is also a strong supporter of Denim Days, a cancer-related fund-raising event in which store employees who opt to wear denim to work on Fridays are asked to donate $5 to charity, which Cochran said he matches.

Apart from winning one of IGA's retailer awards this year, the store has received IGA's top "five-star rating" for the past six years, based on 1,200 areas of cleanliness and operational excellence as judged by an independent third party. According to IGA, Cochran's store is the only IGA supermarket in California to receive that rating six years in a row.

Valley IGA Plus, in its third incarnation, is 32,500 square feet, with volume estimated at $11.5 million a year. The original store was opened by Calvin Chu in 1960, rebuilt and expanded in 1977, and rebuilt and expanded again in 1997 at its current location in Waterford Plaza, a 12-store strip center owned by Chu.

The store has been affiliated with IGA since 1985, and it was one of the stores Cochran used to call on when he was IGA operations manager for Fleming's Fresno division from 1986 to 1993.

In the course of his job, Cochran met Chu's daughter, Jamie, and married her in 1989. He continued to travel for Fleming, but decided to accept his father-in-law's offer to join the business in 1993.

Reflecting the store's status as a community gathering place, Valley IGA Plus has a 15-foot service counter up front where customers can pay utility and cable bills, buy money orders, send telegrams via Western Union, ship packages via UPS, obtain notary services, cash checks, and deposit mail at a postal drop box.

The food court, which takes up one side of the store, includes Chu Chu Express, a Chinese restaurant at which former owner Calvin Chu's relatives from Canton, China, do the cooking; Annie's Kitchen, featuring hot entrees and side dishes; Pick'n's Chickens; a sandwich shop called Hometown Deli; and a bakery called Bakers Boulevard.

Valley IGA Plus is the only supermarket in Waterford, Cochran said. The nearest competitor, an independent operator, is located about eight miles away. However, Cochran's store also competes with Save Mart, Raley's, Food Max, Winco and Wal-Mart, he said.

"They're all competitors because their presence gives consumers greater choice," Cochran said. "When people drive home in the evening, they pass a lot of places where they can stop in and buy groceries.

"In the old days, when there were fewer choices, more people stopped at the IGA. Now, everybody has cut themselves a slice of the pie, and we're working to keep our slice the same size, or maybe to make it bigger," Cochran said.