Grocer finds support of local schools key to success; Tiburon next

[caption id="attachment_21300" align="alignleft" width="360" caption="Woodlands Market owner Don Santa"][/caption]

Name: Don Santa

Title: Owner, founder

Company: Woodlands Markets

Company address:  735 College Ave., Kentfield 94904

Phone:  415-457-8160

Website:  www.woodlandsmarket.com

Age: _50

Residence: Ross

Professional background: Stockbroker, grocer

Education: Sonoma State University

Staff: 200

KENTFIELD – One of Marin County's most stalwart supporters of schools and nonprofits is not an investment banker or the CEO of a major corporation as one might expect. Don Santa is a grocer.

Purchasing a small neighborhood market in 1986, he grew it into an operation with sales- per-square-foot three times the national average.

The Woodlands Market in Kentfield is upscale in every sense, from its on-site bakery and cafe to its weekly wine tasting sessions, organic ice cream creamery, in-house roasted coffee, imported and domestic cheese selections and locally sourced meats and poultry.

During the last 20 years Mr. Santa and his family – two sisters, a brother-in-law and four members of the youngest generation work in and around the operation – have donated more than $2.3 million to local schools and charitable organizations.

The Santas hold charitable events at the market and often welcome fundraising groups to their home and spacious grounds in the hills above Ross.

Now the family has completed the purchase of a beloved corner market in Ross and is about to break ground on a state-of-the-art Woodlands Market in nearby Tiburon.

We asked Don Santa, who prefers to omit the title Mr., to describe how the Woodlands Market business model emerged.

THE BUSINESS JOURNAL: What drew you into the food retailing business?

DON: At age 25, I was a stockbroker making cold calls and realizing what a terrible fit it was for me. By chance a funky little wine and liquor market in my neighborhood went up for sale. I had no money, no retail skills or experience. But I convinced the owner I could make a success of it by hard work. He agreed to carry the papers.

I actually have some grocer's blood in my veins. My great, great uncle ran a market at California and Hyde when he first arrived in San Francisco from Italy. But his store was eventually squeezed out by supermarkets, and my father, who had witnessed the demise of so many small family markets during the 1960s, tried hard to talk me out of going into the business.

After I respectfully disagreed with him, he pitched in and worked as hard as I did until his death several years later.

THE BUSINESS JOURNAL: Can you describe your business model?

DON: During the first years I became a student of the trade and took a non-conventional look at a lot of other markets. I came to the conclusion that the usual practice of putting 1 percent, 2 percent of sales into advertising wasn't the best way to go in certain situations. You spend money advertising a special price on something, and the large markets easily undercut your price.

Instead I decided to put a percentage of my sales into the community, starting with the school across the street. In Sacramento, school budgets were being slashed, so our contribution was welcome.

That model did more to differentiate Woodlands from other stores. ... We've steadily grown our space from 10,000 square feet of sales and 8,000 square feet of warehouse to double that size. I started at $30,000 to $35,000 a week in sales, with 12 employees. Now we have $550,000 to $600,000 a week in sales and employ about 200.

THE BUSINESS JOURNAL: How have you weathered the current recession?

DON: We had our first flat year in 2009, off 5 percent or 6 percent. Already we're pulling out of the slump. Our new cafe is bringing in additional revenues.

THE BUSINESS JOURNAL: Yet it seems an odd time to expand.

DON: The Tiburon store has been in the works for a number of years, and it's badly wanted by the Tiburon community. We were approached by the Allens, who run the Belvedere Land Co. (owner of most of downtown Tiburon) to put a branch of Woodlands Market there. They made us a lease offer we couldn't refuse.

The store in Ross wasn't planned at all. The owners wanted to retire and asked us if we would take it over. They knew we'd do our best to keep its old-fashioned style. And we plan to phase in changes very gradually, keeping the original sign and the lunch-providing arrangement with the nearby school. We'll even continue to carry the family accounts. In fact, we might try running accounts in our other stores.  It's refreshing to see that level of trust still exists.

THE BUSINESS JOURNAL: Tell us more about the Tiburon store.

DON: We'll break ground in late November or early December. It'll be a 12,000-square-foot operation, designed from the ground up. It's exciting to start with a blank canvas.

My sister is a gifted designer, so she'll be involved. We haven't put construction out to bid, but we've always used local firms. The cafe in the Kentfield store was built by Tony Anello of Anello Construction.

The Woodlands Market in Tiburon will be on a level the community has never had in a local market, with all of our locally sourced meats, poultry, dairy, produce. We just started our own farming operation, so a lot of the produce will be grown at Woodlands Farms. We'll have a cafe, and we hope to create a real neighborhood hub for locals.

And as always, we'll be supporting the local schools in a big way.

THE BUSINESS JOURNAL: Whole Foods has come to Novato and Mill Valley. Does it take some of your customers?

DON: I have a lot of admiration for Whole Foods. The owner is a friend of mine. Sure, we lose customers to them, but we're betting Tiburon residents won't cross the freeway if their needs are met in their home town. Right now we have a whole contingent of them shopping in Kentfield.