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November 26, 2015

Behind the scenes with the world’s best supermarket: Frewville Foodland

CityMag details the reasons why Adelaide's Finest Supermarket in Frewville is now the World's Best Supermarket.

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  • Words : Joshua Fanning
  • Pictures: Jonathan van der Knaap

“We have said and say today that we create our own benchmark,” says Spero Chapley.


 CRG’s Foodland at Frewville was awarded Best Supermarket in the World at the IGA 2016 Awards of Excellence in Las Vegas, Nevada. This article was first published in CityMag’s print edition – Summer 2015/16


CityMag is sitting in Spero’s elegant home at a long kitchen bench. The home overlooks the expanse of metropolitan Adelaide from Seacliff on one side to Outer Harbor on the other.

“One hit or two?”, he asks as he places a coffee mug beneath the machine built into the kitchen wall.

Chasing down Spero – the general manager of the Commercial Retail Group (CRG) which owns and operates the Adelaide’s Finest Supermarkets brand, has been difficult. Not because Spero has been evasive, but because his daily schedule is a constant churn of meetings, planning and site-visits among his family’s growing portfolio of properties.

“It’s all about: Give. Them. What. They. Want. What they want and deserve.” – Spero Chapley

Spero Chapley at home. This photo: Joshua Fanning.

Spero Chapley at home. This photo: Joshua Fanning.

Coming into his home and sharing a cup of coffee is the perfect way to meet the man at the helm of a supermarket business that has said no to self-serve checkouts, created more than 100 new jobs in less than 12 months and runs between 38,000 and 42,000 different product lines on its shelves.

“I don’t know why or where it started,” says Spero amid the grind, grunt and gurgle of the coffee machine, “but this industry started deciding to take the human factor out of the business, when pretty much everything we want as consumers is about feel and touch and smell and aromas.

“It’s sucked the life and blood out of these businesses,” he says, placing a strong, fragrant cup of coffee down in front of us.

CityMag was stopped in our tracks recently on a visit to CRG’s Frewville Foodland. Formerly a diminutive, fluro-lit and lino-floored supermarket opposite the Arkaba on Glen Osmond Road, Frewville Foodland has been transformed by the Adelaide’s Finest Supermarkets brand.

Live piano in store. Of course

Live piano in store. Of course

At the front of the store is a fully equipped café staffed by a young group – the sort of people you’d expect to see working at any one of the inner-city’s popular coffee shops.

Inside, a raft of elegant LED panels throw a clear and crisp light over the store without a single flickering bulb to be seen. At the eastern end of the supermarket a slab of dark concrete acts as the perfect platform for a rainbow of fruit and veg shapes and textures.

In the prominent organic section, a resident local to the area sits at a piano giving a perfect (at least to our ear) rendition of Beethoven’s Für Elise, while an elderly gentleman pores over a newspaper at a large communal table in the centre of it all.

This is no ordinary supermarket.

“A lot of what we do is make really good progress in changing the supermarket and making it better,” says Paul Mabarrack – our tour guide at the Frewville store.

And no, the Frewville Foodland doesn’t offer tours (yet), but Paul is in a position to walk us through the business after more than seven years with CRG – all of it spent as part of the company’s top-tier management team.

“One of the things we struggle with is – when does a technological feature benefit the business and when is it simply a solution in search of a problem?” – Paul Mabarrack

Paul Mabarrack chats with an employee

Paul Mabarrack chats with an employee

Paul says that he and his peers have a mandate from Spero and the family to be constantly thinking of what’s next. As head of the company’s online division, Banana Blue, Paul is closer than most to the effects of digital disruption.

We stop and look at a small, digital device purporting to help us with our “cheese journey”. We pipe up, exclaiming how helpful it sounds but Paul is quick to pooh pooh the technology.

“Don’t look at it too hard guys,” Paul says while scrunching up his eyes at the sight of the Samsung tablet. He explains that it was installed by a cheese supplier but his opinion is it only works sometimes and, point blank, does nothing to enhance his customer’s shopping experience.

“One of the things we struggle with is – when does a technological feature benefit the business and when is it simply a solution in search of a problem?

“Quite often people will come to us with technical ideas but they’re a solution looking for a problem and there isn’t a problem. It doesn’t exist but they’ve got a new beaut idea and think, ‘let’s flog it to these guys’.

“So we’re constantly sifting through those and the test of it really is – how does it enhance the customer experience and if it doesn’t? Forget it.”

If you looked at the spreadsheet running this business, its columns would be filled with adjectives rather than numbers. There is a certain feeling this supermarket evokes that is impossible to qualify or quantify. And it’s a feeling that didn’t just spring up with the renovations at Frewville, but instead has grown from a culture the company has been developing since purchasing another supermarket across town on Fiveash Drive at Pasadena.

Spero tells us about the state of that supermarket when his family purchased the Pasadena site in the early 2000s.

“Big Crow was a concept store,” he says frowning. “A big bulk warehouse that wanted to funnel you through areas. The first aisle was placed at 90 degrees to the entrance so that you could only see one aisle,” he continues.

“Convenience went out the door. They forgot about the customer. The people who designed it – it met their own criteria and not their clients’.”

And so after several other Foodland operators had given the site a go and then handed the keys back, CRG moved in, practically binned everything and started from scratch.

“Within two years we’d tripled the sales and quadrupled the sales in the first four or five years,” Spero says, now smiling.

Pasadena was where we encountered our first supermarket shopping “experience”.

At the back of that store, a series of small round tables and chairs are dotted throughout the bread area, creating a café that has been there for more than a decade.

“Back in 2004 we put these tables and chairs into the supermarket,” says John Falidis, the promotions manager at Pasadena.

“You feel proud that you’re employed by an organisation that says, ‘there are no rules. Go out there and try things differently…” – John Falidis

John Falidis, the promotions manager at Pasadena Foodland

John Falidis, the promotions manager at Pasadena Foodland

As far as supermarkets go, Pasadena is a giant. It feels big enough to swallow two Frewvilles. When CRG took possession of the property, they remodeled the back-end and put in the state’s first “cheesebar” and the decision was taken to put in some tables and chairs and a coffee machine as well.

John explains it was during the design process that the café idea first emerged.

“While we were designing this, we were thinking about, ‘now we’ve got our cheese and our antipasto and our olives and all that. What else can we add to this mix… Then we thought coffee. How many people want to enjoy a coffee?,” John asks rhetorically.

Also joining us for a coffee in the café at the back of Pasadena Foodland is Simon O’Dea. Simon is the assistant store manager. Both he and John lean forward in their seats when we ask about their understanding of the company’s reasons for shunning self-serve checkouts. John answers quickly.

“We find that a customer going through without having a discussion at the last exit point – that’s not creating a shopping experience. In fact,” John adds, “that’s quite rude”.

A promise for the future

A promise for the future

Simon then recounts an experience he had recently where he saw a lineup of trolleys at a register and he offered to open up a new register and help relieve the bottleneck.

“They said, ‘no. I want to go through Val’s checkout’.”

Slated for re-development in 2016, Pasadena Foodland isn’t quite as charming as it’s recently renovated sister at Frewville, but both Simon and John see no difference between the two. For them, the success of Adelaide’s Finest Supermarkets isn’t due to garden walls and cafés or even pianos. It’s the culture CRG has created that distinguishes them from the competition.

“You feel proud about what you do,” says John. “You feel proud that you’re employed by an organisation that says, ‘there are no rules. Go out there and try things differently. Just come to work and know that every day is a different day and we’re looking for new opportunities.’”

One of the opportunities CRG offers its employees is professional development.

This is clear when we learn that the organisation of a series of seminars for female staff and management was a big part of the reason Spero was initially hard to track down for an interview, and when we meet some more of CRG’s employees.

Rachel Godley and Julie Smith

Rachel Godley and Julie Smith

A florist for 22 years, Rachel Godley sought out a life change and found employment with the company just over a year ago. Now, she’s running the bakery department – and overseeing its 23 staff – at Frewville even though she’s never worked as a baker before or managed a roster.

“I’ve obviously come from something quite creative into this,” says Rachel. “But I feel like all my creative energy is used in work.

“All the things I used to do to use up my creative energy after work, I’m not even looking at these things anymore because it’s all gone. So even though baking is completely different to working with flowers it’s still all about making things look beautiful, and merchandising and all that kind of thing.”

Nodding along confidently while listening to Rachel is Julie Smith, department manager of variety, plants and flowers. She’s been with CRG for eight years.

“What did Spero say at a meeting one day? – ‘The rule is – there are no rules,’” says Julie.

“Because he wants you to use your imagination, use your mind, get out there. Look at what other people are doing. Don’t copy it – do something else. Bring something else to the table.”

And CityMag is sitting with Julie and Rachael at one such table. We’re sitting in the simple but contemporary looking structure at the front of the Frewville store, which is filled with large, timber communal tables and smaller café-style seating.

The area acts as a dining hall for Mr Nick’s, the in-house café at Frewville that we mentioned at the top of the article. However, it’s kind of weird and definitely unlike anything we’ve seen before.

The Frewville café has recently started serving Thursday and Friday dinners. This photo: Joshua Fanning.

The Frewville café has recently started serving Thursday and Friday dinners. This photo: Joshua Fanning.

“We had a bit of negativity towards opening the café, or the kitchen as we call it,” says Pat Russo – store manager at Frewville.

“It was, ‘no, no, we can’t do that, because what do we know about running a kitchen, or a café or running a restaurant? What do we know?’” Pat says. “We just joke that we’re baked bean guys.”

Pat’s typical day starts at 7:30am or 8am when he arrives at work. The day is a constant flow of micro-meetings, floor checks, service and spreadsheets. Pat says that he’s close to the business and everyday he knows how it’s performing. This closeness allows he and fellow managers to innovate more quickly, to try new things and explore the no rules mantra.

And whether it’s trialing a prosciutto in the deli section that retails for $100 a kilo or starting up a restaurant at the front of a store, the company believes these risks are mitigated by experience – but it’s not the experience of owning and operating supermarkets they’re talking about.

While the two juggernaut national brands – Coles and Woolworths – continue to seek profit through cost-cutting, grab at efficiency through automation and achieve greater control through minimising customer choice, CRG focus on their customers’ experience rather than their own.

“It’s all about: Give. Them. What. They. Want,” says Spero, punctuating each word with a rap of his knuckles on the dark granite bench top in his kitchen.

“What they want and deserve; a world-class supermarket and a world-class complex,” says Spero. And before we can ask him what that means, he has the answers.

“What does that mean? Not just nice design but it means, where’s the nearest toilet if my kid needs to go? How do I open the door of my car so that I can get my shopping in there and I don’t have to worry about hitting the next car? How can I walk up to a supermarket, especially as an older person, without tripping over the gutter?”

Adelaide’s Finest Supermarkets is a universal success because it puts its customers at the heart of what they do. Indeed the only thing you might trip over at Frewville and Pasadena Foodland are the hundreds of other customers there, all shopping and having a wonderful experience bumping into one another.

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