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

Published: Tuesday, July 31 2012 5:00 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.

"We heard a lot about WalMart, long before they got here," said Randy Harmon. "They won't let you compete on price, so we don't try to, although we can come close. We have differentiated ourselves in the last 10 years with food that's fresh, quality, and prepared on-site. We try to buy our food direct from the producer, and minimally processed."

The company worked closely with producers to shorten the time it takes to get fresh produce, meat, fish, dairy and baked goods to the store. They began grinding their own beef and made their own sausages in-store. They also sell all-natural meat and poultry that's not plumped with salt water, additives or hormones.

Instead of deli items made elsewhere and shipped to the stores, chefs work on site preparing salads, breads, entrees, soups and sandwiches for the deli. For instance, on the morning of July 25, store chefs from Ogden to St. George gathered around the stoves at the City Creek culinary school to test and taste each others' soup recipes. The goal was to standardize the soup recipes used at all the stores, so that people could expect the same soups no matter which Harmons store they visited.

The Harmon brothers admit the "quality" mantra can be a hard sell to people who focus only on price.

"It may not be priced as low as someone else, but the quality of the product and shelf life is where the value is," said Bob Harmon. "We have very astute customers. They are very knowledgeable, and they are looking for clean, healthy food. You can only get 'fresh' once."

Looking back on the history of Harmons stores, a curious question sometimes comes up. Founder Jake Harmon is a brother to Pete Harman, the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee who helped Colonel Sanders build his recipe into a worldwide brand. Yet, the two spell their names differently.

Pete Harman has told the story that Jake ordered an expensive sign for his new store. When it arrived, the name was misspelled, and the cost to correct it was prohibitive. It seemed easier to change the name than the sign.

"That's one version of the story," said Randy Harmon. "Another version is that Jake and Irene's marriage license was spelled with an 'o' instead of an 'a,' and it was going to cost a lot to correct it."

"So that tells you something about who my grandfather was," Bob Harmon said, noting that when he was starting out in business, the country was struggling through the Depression era, and money was tight. "Family name meant a great deal to him, but at the end of the day, he was trying to make a go of it, and it was important to get his business started."

No matter how it's spelled, the Harmon name is one that has become well-known in Utah over the past 80 years.

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.

Email: vphillips@desnews.com

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