By Don Shilling
Mary London pushed her shopping cart around the new Rulli Bros. grocery store in Boardman in disbelief.
“This is beautiful,” the 82-year-old South Side resident said as she congratulated Mike Rulli on the store’s opening day.
London has been shopping with the Rullis since the 1940s. She recalled the store in downtown Youngstown that featured locally grown produce but also had chickens out front on the sidewalk.
On Monday, however, the Rullis showed off their biggest store yet at South and Maple avenues. It doesn’t have any live chickens, but it has more than twice the number of items than the previous Boardman store at South Avenue and Mathews Road.
“All they need are some shoes and clothes, and I could just stay here all day,” London said.
Shoppers also asked about the old Mathews Road store.
Rulli said family members hope to reopen the smaller location as a neighborhood store with an emphasis on ethnic foods. He said they originally intended to keep both stores but decided two weeks ago that they and the employees would be stretched too thin.
He added that the old store needs extensive updating.
The family is still operating a store on Kirk Road in Austintown.
The new store, however, was so busy on opening day that customers in the early afternoon were waiting to find parking spaces outside and waiting for carts to be returned inside so they could have one.
Rulli said family members were excited by the crowds because they have invested much in the project, which he would describe only as a multimillion-dollar effort.
“We have it all riding on this store,” he said.
Kathy Miller, a Boardman trustee, said the store will benefit the township.
“It’s always good to see someone growing,” she said.
She noted, however, that it took four years for the Rullis to complete their project, and she doesn’t expect more development along South Avenue in the near future because of the weak economy.
Rulli said family members took “baby steps” in building the store because they wanted to limit their financial risk. First, they bought the property and then they started saving for construction.
He said family members decided several years ago that they needed another store larger than that at Mathews Road. They knew many customers were coming for meat and produce but going elsewhere to buy groceries.
The other store has 19,000 square feet; the new one has 52,000 square feet.
The additional size has allowed the Rullis to expand their offerings of traditional grocery products and ethnic items. The pet food section had been four feet long, for example. The new store has the entire side of a long aisle devoted to dog and cat food.
The old store had 10 varieties of olive oil. The new one has 55, including 14 new varieties that the Rullis have never carried before.
Family members grew nervous as the stock market collapsed and the recession worsened after construction got under way last year, Rulli said. But sales have continued their slow growth pace of 1 percent to 2 percent a year, he said.
He said he thinks many people are eating at home rather than going to restaurants. The recession, however, has changed people’s buying habits at the grocery store, he said.
People are buying less prime rib and high-end beer and more rump roast and lettuce.
“It’s almost a throwback to Norman Rockwell — meat and potatoes,” he said.
One thing that won’t change is the family’s commitment to be present in the stores, said Rulli — who left the Boardman store later in the day so he could close the Austintown store for the night.
Family members work 70 to 80 hours a week in the stores, which is the only way to keep up the quality and hold down the prices, he said.
That commitment also has led to the business surviving to the third generation, he said. Rulli rattled off about a dozen names of local grocers who have failed over the recent decades. Mostly they went under because the children of the founders hated the business, he said.
“My dad was smart enough to get us excited,” said Rulli, 40.
He was speaking of himself and his brother, Mark, who shared a bedroom growing up and still work side-by-side in the business today. They are joined by their father, Frank, and mother, Louise.
Another brother, Frank Jr., is an architect in Youngstown but often helps out with the business. A fourth brother, Nick, is a lawyer in California.
Someday, there might be another new wrinkle to the business. Mike Rulli said he and his brother Mark would like to take the company back to its roots.
Their grandfather Nick and great-uncle Frank started Rulli Bros. in downtown in 1917 as a place where they could sell produce they grew on their 14-acre farm on the East Side.
Their grandsons have talked about growing their own produce that they could sell at their stores. Their father owns land near state Route 46 south of Canfield.
“It would take everything back full circle,” Mike Rulli said.