To all who love French brie and pistachios, not necessarily together, a word of thanks to James Poppe’s former employer is in order.
The retired Trader Joe’s executive credits his 30-plus years with the innovative company as preparing him to accept the lead volunteer role with SCORE Cape Fear Region, an organization dedicated to assisting entrepreneurs bring their ideas to the marketplace.
Poppe was appointed chairman in October after volunteering for about a year.
Raised in southern California, Poppe started a full-time job in the grocery industry the day after graduating from high school, working his way up the management chain before leaving 14 years later, when he decided the direction taken by acquisition managers wasn’t in line with his thinking.
He landed at Trader Joe’s when it had only 21 stores, all in his home market.
Poppe started at the bottom and worked his way up again. He oversaw the San Diego and Orange County sector of the company as it grew from 21 stores to dozens. In 1996, the company opened its first East Coast store in Boston, and he moved.
He stayed in Boston until 2006 when he moved to the New York metro area as Trader Joe’s expanded into Manhattan.
By the time he retired in 2013, he had seen Trader Joe’s introduce a culture that valued employee exuberance and adventure in product introduction – including brie and pistachios.
Poppe said he started at Trader Joe’s when it was still Pronto Markets. The original company was small, but innovative.
Compensation was quite different from the remainder of the grocery industry. He said joining the fledging company was a gamble, but it fit his personality.
“There was more creativity, less bureaucracy, less regulation and a heck of a lot more fun,” he said. “It also gave me an education in the world of food that I would have never received in a supermarket, from being able to understand the world of cheese to gaining an education in the world of wine that I never knew existed.”
The Trader Joe’s philosophy is two-fold, he said. The company seeks to find and develop unique products.
“Back when I was a store manager, we were selling French brie. My wife and I visited the production facility outside of Paris. In 1987 or ‘88, Trader Joe’s was the single largest importer of French brie in the country, and we only had 30 stores. You couldn’t find it in a supermarket,” he said. “That’s a great example of introducing a food. That’s how Trader Joe’s grew the business.”
They did the same with California pistachios, Poppe said.
“We were probably the first retailer to sell California-grown pistachio nuts back in the 1980s when nobody knew there was a crop being grown anywhere in the U.S. Now they’re everywhere,” he said.
The other part of the equation, he said, is to have well-compensated employees who are encouraged and rewarded when they take great care of the customers.
“When you walk in it has a different vibe. Employees are happy to talk with you. They’re proud of their store. You don’t have to be in the Wilmington store too long to feel that,” he said.
Poppe settled in Southport when he retired after a search that included the requirement of a nearby Trader Joe’s and an ocean at a cost of living more reasonable than in his native West Coast.
He knew that Wilmington was on the map for a store location. He and his wife “fell in love with the smallness” of Southport and moved into a new home community there.
They became loyal patrons of a downtown wine shop and purchased it when the owners wanted to retire.
Poppe says his sense of retail gained in the 33 years of merchandising, operations and managing employees helps in the operation of the wine shop as well the operation of SCORE.
“We get a lot of people who have some sort of a retail small business angle – pressure washing to home health care. So many common threads run through the businesses,” he said.
His experiences, and those of his fellow volunteers, are invaluable to local business owners seeking to expand, improve or to innovate a new or existing business.
“I suppose, if anything, SCORE is one of the best-kept secrets nationally,” he said. “A lot of people have no idea we exist.”
One of his goals is to elevate its presence in the community by offering more educational workshops. He is working to forge tighter relationships with the Small Business Administration, the University of North Carolina Wilmington Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the local community colleges.
He’s reached out to Brunswick County organizations including the Small Business Center of Brunswick Community College and the chambers of commerce. He’s looking for opportunities at BCC’s satellite campus in Southport.
SCORE’s local office has undergone a minor remodel to better accommodate small workshops.
His primary purpose as chairman, he said, is to be a conduit for businesses. While the national organization gives some guidance and assistance, local volunteers work directly with clients.
“Most of us have ongoing relationships with past clients that we’ve been working with,” Poppe said.
He said he keeps an eye on best practices and manages volunteers to be certain they’re following protocol and abiding by the code of ethics.
“Being that [SCORE is] a 100 percent volunteer organization, one of my other jobs is to be sure volunteers are happily engaged in what they’re doing with the chapter,” he said.
The cadre of volunteers brings expertise in accounting, manufacturing, marketing social media, retail and much more.
“We have the ability to reach deeper and find help for someone even if we don’t have it in our chapter,” Poppe said. “I think the most important part is that it is confidential and it’s free. Our only goal in life is to help our clients with their business and hopefully help them succeed, whether it’s starting a business or coming in with an existing business that has some challenges.”