Valerie Phillips: Harmon's still thriving after 80 years in business

Published: Tuesday, July 31 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Alberto Diaz Labrada competing in ACF Pastry Chef of the Year contest in Orlando.

Provided by Acf, Provided by Acf

Brothers Bob and Randy Harmon have a lot to celebrate these days. Last year the Utah-based grocers successfully opened three new stores. And one of their executive chefs was recently named Pastry Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation.

The company has come a long way since Bob and Randy's grandparents, Jake and Irene Harmon, opened a fruit stand in 1932. Now with 16 grocery stores from Ogden to St. George, Harmons is celebrating its 80th birthday July 30 to Aug. 12 with prize drawings from noon-6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and free pie and ice cream. The company is also sponsoring its annual birthday food drive for the Utah Food Bank.

First the most recent news: Adalberto Diaz Labrada, executive chef and instructor at Harmons City Creek store, showed off his culinary skills in the ACF's national contest in Orlando in July. The chefs had 2 1/2 hours to prepare and serve both a hot and cold dessert, as well as a sugar-chocolate sculpture. He walked away with the Pastry Chef of the Year title and $5,000.

In the national competition, Diaz Labrada's winning desserts were inspired by the movie "Avatar." He made a chocolate jaconde (a thin cake) with coconut mousse, pineapple compote and mango gelée; and a habanero dark chocolate pot de cr?e with hazelnut florentine, orange brioche doughnut and orange blueberry sauce.

Diaz Labrada won the Western Regional competition earlier this year with warm pineapple upside-down date pudding cake with coconut mascarpone mousse and pineapple orange sorbet. A native of Cuba, he graduated from the International School for Tourism Entertainment in Havana. He immigrated to the U.S. in 2000, and began working as a baker at Granato's. He was a culinary instructor at Utah Valley University in Orem before getting hired as a cooking instructor at Harmons' downtown City Creek store earlier this year.

Diaz Labrada is part of the team of employees that Bob and Randy Harmon praise for the company's longevity. At a time when huge corporations and big-box stores have taken over the grocery industry, the local independent company has managed to survive, and even thrive.

"We wouldn't be here 80 years later if we didn't have amazing, incredible people," said Bob Harmon, the company's vice president. "The team working together is why we've been able to present three different formats in this last year."

He's talking about the three stores Harmons opened in 2011, each with different features from a standard grocery store.

"Emigration Market is a community store in a walkable, bikeable, neighborhood," he said. "Station Park is a dynamic center with mass transit and the freeway crossroads. City Creek has an urban format for those who work or live downtown. We've found out what works. So now we know how to go into a well-developed market like Emigration with a smaller footprint. We don't need acres and acres. City Creek helped us figure out what works in a downtown area."

Parking was one issue that needed refining at the City Creek store. It is free for Harmon's customers, but people were intimidated by the validation system.

"Being the only grocer in the state that had gated validation parking was difficult," said Bob Harmon. "People weren't used to it."

So the gates and tickets were nixed. Instead, an employee monitors the parking areas, and places a warning notice on cars that overstay their two-hour limit. They also offer a valet pick-up service, where a customer can shop, then pull up in a pick-up zone where the groceries can be loaded.

Being willing to adapt is one reason why the company is still in business. Ten or 15 years ago, big-box grocers changed the way the industry bought and sold food, with huge central distribution centers to cut costs. Through advice from Harmon's company president Dean Peterson and successful grocers around the country, Harmons decided to focus on quality, freshness and customers service instead of price.

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