Forty years ago, a 9,000 square-foot store called Jack’s Foodtown opened in Smithfield. Today it is known as Lee’s Marketplace, and stretches from Cache Valley to Heber.
“Our 9,000 square-foot store would probably fit in our produce department now,” said Shari Badger, cofounder of Lee’s. “It’s neat to be at this end and see the evolution of where we started and how things have changed over the years.”
Lee and Shari would go on to expand their “little store” three times with remodels until the boom of Smithfield and north Cache Valley led them to building a brand new location just across the street. At the same time, the name changed to Lee’s Marketplace.
The company — now led by CEO and president Jon Badger, Lee and Shari’s son — has only expanded, both in property and products. Outside of Cache Valley, there is a store in North Ogden, two in Salt Lake City, one in Heber and one being built in Herriman. A brand-new store will break ground in Richmond in March of 2022.
“The growth of Utah is phenomenal right now … we have a lot of great people,” Shari said. “We have several people in our company right now who started off as a bagger when they were 16 — this was a job to work while you’re in high school and they’re in management positions now and help run our company. From my side of it, for as many years as I’ve been doing it, that’s kind of one of the exciting parts to watch that growth.”
One of the biggest reasons Lee got into the grocery industry was its fast-paced nature — something both Shari and Jon enjoy about it as well.
“I think the grocery industry is a competitive industry,” Jon said. “It’s a lot of challenges that are fun to try and figure out, work with. I love working with people and this is one of those industries where you work with not only the public and customers, but also all of our team and helping them develop and grow and teaching them skills for life.”
After Lee’s death in 2009, Jon “stepped up” on the corporate level and began to run the company. He received a certificate in food industry management at USC and had spent time working at a family-run grocery store in Washington.
It takes a lot of people to run a chain of grocery stores: five teams, in fact. At the corporate level, Lee’s has a marketing, accounting, operations, executive and IT teams to make the commerce run smoothly. To keep up with the industry’s constant changes, Shari and Jon often travel across the country to visit other local grocery stores and bring back ideas for Lee’s.
“We’ve always said wherever you go in a store, come out with at least one idea, whether it’s the tag on the shelf or the way they’re displaying their bananas,” Shari said.
Some of the things they look at are the designs of shelves, parking lots, lights and cleanliness.
The two have visited St. Louis, Minneapolis, Boston, and many more cities. At one point the two visited 32 stores in four days. Jon said that some of the ideas they’ve brought back include technology, ambiance and displays.
“It’s a large industry, but it’s very good with peers and sharing,” he said. “So we have a lot of great connections across the country that help us get the best of the best ideas and bring them back to Cache Valley.”
In addition to keeping things “fresh,” the stores have to keep up with daily prices, sales and possible discounts. Stores set their own prices and often discount seasonal items such as produce or meat.
While Jon acknowledged that sometimes customers can get something for cheaper somewhere else, shopping at Lee’s is an “experience.”
“We hope that as they come into our store, they get a good value,” he said. “We anticipate our customers are going to have a good experience when they come in and that the price and the value of what we’re giving them is worthwhile.”
Before technology, changing prices were based on invoices and percentages. Shari used to use a calculator and a typewriter to record everything, and products had to be tagged daily.
“We had 20 employees. Lee would go to work every day and bring the stuff home for me to do at night,” she said. “I had a calculator and a typewriter, no computer, and that’s how they would price everything, put tags on it, and the price would change … change the tag on it, change the purple stamp.”
With the success of the company and the community’s impact on the store, Jon and Shari have tried to give back to everyone who helped get Lee’s to this level of success.
“With growth has come more ability to sponsor and support all of the great organizations in the community,” Jon said. “We try to do things for the local schools, we do things for all sorts of organizations from charitable organizations to food banks.”
Shari and Jon are both active in the community, serving on the local hospital board and Utah State board respectively. They have donated thousands of dollars to different organizations across the state.
“The community has been great to us and we feel like we have a lot to give back to them,” Shari said.
Jon also encouraged anyone who might be interested in the grocery industry to get involved, calling it a “great career” for people.
“We have many of our managers that have been here for 20 years and didn’t think this is where they’d end up but are so happy to be here and making money to provide for their families and support their hobbies and different things,” he said.
Shari added, “It’s fun to see a 16-year-old that is backwards and a little awkward talking to people, but it’s a good place to learn how to work and interact with people.”