Rural grocery keeps a share of the market

Endurance: Dodging competition from supermarket chains, Boarman's in Highland continues to thrive.

Small business

Howard Business

January 08, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

When a Giant Food store opened in Clarksville two years ago, Elizabeth Connolly had a sinking feeling.

"My stomach flipped," she said of her first glimpse of the large, new grocery store. "I thought, `How are we going to compete with this?' "

Sixty thousand square feet of canned goods, produce and baked goods in a brightly lighted supermarket with wide aisles - all of this seemed too much like a real-life giant that would dwarf the small, 70-year-old grocery store her grandfather founded.

But Boarman's Meat Market is still standing - with the Giant Food and a Food Lion - amid the country farms and quarter-million-dollar homes of Highland and Clarksville.

The competition hurt the established butcher shop at the onset - taking away about half its grocery business, according to co-owner George Boarman - but the old-fashioned country store has fought the newcomers. Today, he said, the store has regained about half the customers that were lost - longtime neighbors are returning, and new customers are discovering the store's charm.

"People come around and say, `Oh, God, I'm not coming in,' " said Richard Kolodrubetz, a loyal customer. "But then when they come in, they say, `God, how do they pack all this in here?' "

Fresh vegetables are stacked neatly in wicker baskets in the produce aisle. The meat counter boasts fresh cuts of steak and prime rib, stuffed pork chops, handmade crab cakes, and deli meats. The homemade country sausage - some days formed in the shape of a pig - is made using the recipe that founder George Boarman brought from Germany.

"This is what we're known for - our homemade country sausage," said George Boarman, the grandson who owns the store with his father, and greets customers with handshakes, hugs and kisses.

The elder George Boarman opened the original store in 1931 in Mount Rainier in Prince George's County. In 1956, his son, Florentine, who had moved to Highland to run a farm, invited him to move the market to a white cinderblock building at Routes 108 and 216 in Highland. The father-and-son team ran the store, serving farmers and farmhands from Bladensburg to Ellicott City.

In the early days, much of the beef and pork sold in the store was raised on the Boarman farm. They sold plowshares and clothing, coal and kerosene, according to George Boarman, the grandson. Florentine Boarman braved blizzards to keep the doors open for residents in need of coal.

Supermarkets that opened decades ago in Ellicott City and Laurel proved to be Boarman's first competition, but the country store never had a supermarket in its back yard until a Giant Food opened two years ago in Clarksville - two miles away. A little farther along Route 108, a Food Lion opened shortly before Thanksgiving. It was an inevitable development in an area that has rapidly changed from a farm town to an extension of Columbia, the center of the county's population.

"The Giant really affected us, but I don't think it was the Giant as much as" the other stores in the shopping center, said George Boarman. "As a homeowner, you might need a gallon of milk and to get your car washed. Where are you going to go?"

Someone unfamiliar with Highland might drive through the one-stoplight town without perceiving its commercial center. Like the nearby veterinarian's office, novelty shop, saddlery and pharmacy, Boarman's one-story A-frame building is almost part of the scenery. Historical accounts of the area show that a grocery store has stood on Boarman's corner for more than 100 years.

No marquee announces its presence to passers-by. But without much advertisement, and without running sales, George Boarman and his father have kept customers coming back with prices that they say are "right in line" with the retail prices of their competitors.

One shopper recently boasted that Boarman's international and domestic wines comprise the "best wine collection locally."

Family members think their meat brings customers back, but providing good service never hurts. "The store has always reminded me of the show `Cheers' - you know, everybody knows your name," said Geoffrey Jackson, George Boarman's nephew, who works in the store. "You just get a warm feeling when you come to this store."

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