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Tiny Ream's closes its flagship market

Published February 3, 2010 6:58 pm

Retail » Chain marches on as Provo location loses out to bigger competitors.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Ream's flagship store in Provo is shutting its doors, the first market in a chain credited with introducing discount grocery shopping to Utah.

The store opened by Paul Ream in 1948 can no longer compete with big-box stores or the larger Fresh Market just a few blocks away. The closing ends the presence of Ream's in Provo, where the chain began in a temporary rental building 65 years ago.

"By today's standards, the Center Street store is too small, and the property doesn't allow for expansion," said Carl Willoughby, general manager of Salt Lake City-based Ream's Food Stores, which still operates nine stores.

The downtown Provo store at 900 West and Center Street covers 13,000 square feet. By contrast, 90,000 square feet is the average size of a store in the Idaho-based WinCo discount chain, which entered Utah last October.

In April, WinCo is set to open a store just off Interstate 15 and 800 North in nearby Orem. The opening is expected to draw away even more downtown Provo shoppers, accustomed to driving across town for deals.

The marketplace was far different in the 1940s when Paul Ream returned to Utah after working for the Safeway grocery chain in Los Angeles. Most stores stocked meat, in-season produce, canned goods and a few non-food items. Prices were fairly uniform.

In 1945, Ream rented a small building on Center Street in Provo, where he sold groceries until he built what would become the company's flagship store a few doors away. The new store was attached to an existing home, where he and his wife reared their four children for the next decade.

"At the time, it was the largest supermarket south of Salt Lake City," said the couple's daughter, Marian Ream, 69. "We could walk into the store from the basement of our home."

Paul Ream's wife, Cleo, whom he later divorced, still lives in the Provo home they built in 1958. Their daughter remembers her parents working long hours, side by side. Early on, they decided that the smiling figure of a Scotsman in a tartan kilt would be an appropriate logo, embodying the ideas of frugality and unbeatable prices.

It was Paul Ream who came upon the idea of selling discount items. He marked them at cost and added 10 percent at the checkout stand to cover expenses. The concept, which began in the basement of the Center Street store, took off.

By 1993, the chain operated 12 stores in Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties under Paul Ream's tight control. He was described as the last of the old-time grocers, cutting meat, ordering produce, stocking shelves and dealing with customers. By the time he died in 2007 at 92, some of his grandchildren were operating stores independent of the family chain, and other markets were closed.

Today, the chain operates eight stores in Salt Lake County and one in Layton. Ream's second wife, Ruby, remains actively involved in the company. In addition, the grandchildren run a Ream's store in Springville. A spokeswoman for the Springville operation declined comment Wednesday.

When the chain's Center Street store in Provo closes after its inventory is sold, 35 people will be laid off. With its closing, neither the chain nor the grandchildren will have a presence in the city where the company was founded.

The Ream's Provo store on Freedom Boulevard , dubbed the Turtle because of its shape, was sold by the grandchildren in 2006 for a housing development.

In 2008, the Provo store at 2250 N. University Parkway also closed. A year earlier, grandson Paul Ream stopped selling beer and tobacco products, reasoning the sales represented only 1 percent of his store's total receipts. But he also predicted he'd lose more than that because the few shoppers who did buy alcohol and cigarettes would buy their groceries elsewhere.

As for the Ream's chain, its strategy is to continue offering low prices, without any of its stores becoming one-stop superstores. It controls costs through low overhead, said general manager Willoughby , who began working as a bagger at the South Salt Lake store in 1966.

None of its stores offers expansive delis, prepared fresh foods, cut flowers, gas stations or pharmacies (only the South Salt Lake store leases space to a pharmacy). And the typical store is about the size of markets in 1994, 33,000 square feet, compared with today's median store size of 47,000 square feet, according to the Food Marketing Institute.

The last store the Ream's chain opened was at Sandy's Willow Creek Shopping Center about 12 years ago.

"We're very careful when it comes to both construction costs and overhead expenses," said Willoughby. "A fresh fish counter is nice for customers, but it's also a money loser, so we don't have them."

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Ream's grocery stores

The Utah-based chain was founded in 1945 in Provo.

The flagship store on 900 W. Center Street in Provo is closing.

The chain owns eight stores in Salt Lake County and one in Layton.

The founder's grandchildren run an independent Ream's store in Springville.