Vella's Market in Constantia, NY


        Vella's Market in Constantia, NY
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The Vella's Story

Written by Jim Santoro, courtesy of the Oswego County Business Magazine.










The Vella's Story

From a real mom-and-pop corner market to a network of three stores with more than 70 employees, the Vellas have preserved their family-style way of doing business in southeastern Oswego County for nearly half a century.

"It's not a job to us, it's a way of life," said Joseph L. Vella, vice president of Vella's Markets. "If you're going to be successful at anything, you need to like it."

Joe's cousin, Lance, serves as president of the company. They represent the third generation of management for this local business.

Shown at right is Lance (and below with Ron) holding the original sign that hung on the Vella's General Store in Cleveland, NY during the 1950's.

About 50 years ago their grandparents, Ignatius and Theresa, decided to join other relatives in Cleveland on the north shore of Oneida Lake. They established the original Vella's Market in a building that previously had been a Foster's grocery store.

Lance's father, John, helped his parents run the store while Joe's father, Leo, served in the Korean War. After Leo completed his service, he began working at the store and John entered the military. The couple and their sons worked together to make the market a success.

It soon outgrew its space, so the Vella's moved the store across the street to the present day location of the North Shore Market.

In 1968, John and Leo expanded the business further by opening Vella's Neighborhood Market in Constantia.

Then, in 1972 they doubled the size of the Constantia store and added an RKB hardware section, which became affiliated with True Value in 1976.

Although he had been involved in the business for most of his life, Joe officially joined Vella's Markets in 1978 upon graduating from college.

Lance came aboard following completion of his higher education in 1984.

"This always has been and still is run as a family business. Everything is shared. Everyone is there to help. We tend to treat our employees more like family than we would if we were a chain store," Joe said. Joe and Lance both started out at the ground level of the business. After college, Joe worked in the Meat Department with his uncle, John. Lance was on the grocery floor, taking orders and stocking shelves. "I like the way we came up through the ranks. We weren't handed anything," Joe said.

In 1987, the Vellas opened a lumber yard across the street from their Constantia grocery and hardware store. Five years later, they moved the hardware store across the street to create a more comprehensive Vella's True Value Home Center, and remodeled the grocery store. Joe attributed the growth of the business throughout the years to the Vella's emphasis on service. "The customers have always come first and we always have given 100 percent to please them," he said. "That's our success story."

In spite of their attention to service, the Vellas, like many traditional neighborhood grocery stores, have felt immense competition from the proliferation of major super-markets. Many people living in southeastern Oswego County work in the Syracuse metro area and pass several supermarkets on their way home, Joe explained. Also, the current trend is for people to buy a few grocery items at a time rather than to do heavy occasional shopping. In addition, the supermarkets are able to purchase, and sometimes sell, products at lower prices due to their volume and proximity to distribution centers. Together, these factors make it more convenient and tempting for Vella's customer base to look elsewhere.

"There are so many new chains and discounters that the market is saturated," he said. "So, we try to find a niche and capitalize on that niche. People may leave us for lower prices, but when they see the service at the chain stores, they come back to us. "People think because we're a small, rural grocery store that we can't be as competitive, but everyone has a bottom line that needs to be attained. You have to sell a large volume because you're working on pennies. Some items are loss leaders, sold below cost to get people to shop your stores." To help the Vellas compete as an independent grocery store, a few years ago the business became a member of the Neighborhood Grocery Group. The coalition has enabled Vella's to buy products at better prices, afford more effective advertising, and offer bulk produce and a full-service deli.

The Vellas added full scanning systems around 1992 to help them better track inventory and decide how to allot shelf space. In 1995, John and Leo "retired." Instead of working seven days a week, they would come and go more as they pleased. (John died in March 1997.) Joe and Lance became principals in the company. Joe's wife Cindy, and Lance's wife, Lisa, also became involved in the everyday business. "There's a lot of gratification from growing up and working in this community." Joe said.

Although most of Vella's customers are neighborhood folks, the markets receive business from the many tourists who frequent the north shore area in the summer to camp and fish or in the winter to snowmobile. Joe and Lance continue to build the business, just as their fathers and grandparents did. They recently added 3,000 sq. ft. to the hardware store by converting storage area into selling space, and they installed a computer system to analyze and mix paints.

"I'd like to say we're done expanding, but as times change we have to change with them," Joe said. Today, Vella's Markets has 71 employees, with 25 to 30 full-timers. About 13 of the full-time employees work at Vella's True Value Home center, eight at the North Shore Market and the rest at Vella's Neighborhood Market.

"There have been a lot of changes in the grocery industry over the past 10 years," Joe said. "We've been able to ride out the storm because of the community support, and we're thankful for that."