What Gucci’s is to shoe stores and Tiffany’s is to jewelers, Byerly’s of Minneapolis is to…supermarkets. “Where else,” asks Donald Byerly, 41-year-old owner and impresario of the world’s swankiest grocery chain, “can you buy a pound of hamburger, a dozen eggs and a $54,000 canary diamond cocktail ring?” Not to mention an $80,000 pavé diamond bracelet, or a seven-foot-high, 24-karat-gold-plated birdcage priced at $75,000.
To be sure, well-dressed customers at each of Byerly’s five outlets in the Twin Cities area push carts past more than 16,000 other items, some 5,500 more than in the average grocery store. Forty-seven different kinds of mustard are on the shelves. Buffalo meat, killer-bee honey, Spanish octopus, cactus leaves and taro root can be found. Fresh seafood is flown in daily. Even the boss thinks Byerly’s goes a bit overboard. Grabbing a can of fried lava worms, Byerly winces, “I can’t believe anybody would eat this.” But if there are questions, Byerly employs a home economist to advise customers.
The 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week food enterprise is geared to the pampered shopper. Since Byerly gets miffed at long lines, patrons hardly ever wait at the checkout counter. And when it’s time to leave, a conveyor system speeds them to the loading area where well-scrubbed employees dressed in specially designed brown-and-beige coordinated outfits load the groceries—carefully packed in pearl-gray bags emblazoned with Byerly’s flamboyant logo—into the trunks of Lincolns and Mercedes station wagons as well as VWs. “It is a big status symbol,” glows Byerly, “to have your garbage sitting out in a Byerly’s bag.”
The kid-glove treatment has paid off handsomely. Byerly’s shoppers spend an average of $19 each per visit—$7 more than the average grocery shopper—and this year sales are expected to top $100 million.
Food shopping, however, is only the beginning at Byerly’s. At the 92,000-square-foot flagship store in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, the main event is the Gallery, a collectibles shop inspired by Byerly’s wife, Marlys, 43, a vice-president of the family firm. “Don and I share a passion for fine porcelain,” she explains. Indeed, they have one of the major collections in the country. Byerly’s most expensive item is a $200,000 Boehm figurine entitled Pileated Woodpeckers, available only on request.
There is also a 190-seat restaurant, a French pastry chef, a flower shop, a post office and a catering service. The supermarket also boasts a bagel bakery, a wine shop, pharmacy, chocolate factory, cooking school and, for the armies of dazed browsers, a very efficient paging system. “At Byerly’s it’s not just kids who get lost,” he chuckles. “Husbands can’t find wives and boyfriends lose track of girlfriends.”
Byerly was born into the business. His father was Russ Byerly, chairman of Super Valu Stores, Inc., the nation’s largest food wholesaler. Instead of playing cowboys and Indians as a child, his mother, Margaret, remembers that Don played grocer. After graduating from Michigan State in 1962 with a degree in food retailing, Byerly worked with several supermarket chains in Florida and in the Midwest before joining forces with his father to open the first Byerly’s in Golden Valley, Minn.
These days, when he’s not behind the desk in his elaborately decorated office with its 290-pound marlin on one wall and a 180-gallon saltwater aquarium on the other, Byerly roams the aisles. But he rarely gets to taste the gourmet foods for which his stores are famous; having recently slimmed down from 328 pounds to a svelte 188, the Stanley Marcus of supermarkets must stick to a carefully balanced maintenance diet.