By LYDIA BERGLAR
When Michael and Stephanie Hunter began shopping at a salvage grocery store in Trenton’s Gross Shopping Center, they had no plans to venture into small business ownership. However, when the opportunity to purchase the salvage store arose, the Hunters realized that they could serve the community through the store.
The Hunters recalled, “We benefited from shopping here. We have six kids. All of them lived at home at the time, and we needed to save money. We were up front with the previous owners that if we purchased the store, it would be a mission for us, not an opportunity to make a lot of money.”
They bought the store in August 2018 and rebranded as Hunter’s Salvage Grocery.
Stephanie explained that their purpose is to love and serve, saying, “We know God put us here to love and serve our community. Being able to offer tangible things, like food, at lower costs to people seemed like a really good way to live our lives for Christ.”
The store was featured in an August 2022 “New York Times” article about the salvage industry. Titled “Dented, Dated, Discontinued? At the Salvage Grocery, It’s Called a Deal,” it featured Hunter’s Salvage and other stores who not only provide affordable food, but who also play a role in reducing food waste.
According to Feeding America, 119 billion pounds of food (across all stages of production and distribution) is wasted in the United States each year. Feeding America reports that this is nearly 40% of all food in America and equals about $408 billion worth of food.
Additionally, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, prices for at-home food (e.g. grocery items prepared/eaten at home) increased by 11.4 percent in 2022 compared to 3.5 percent in 2021. Prices for food-away-from-home (e.g. dining at a restaurant/ordering takeout) increased by 7.7 percent in 2022 compared to 4.5 percent in 2021.
Stephanie noted that the salvage industry is often misunderstood because most people think of expired or ruined food. She explained, “We don’t only get out of date stuff. We just received a pallet of Bush’s Baked Beans that don’t expire until 2024. Pepperidge Farm bread is delivered twice a week. They’ll pull what’s about to go out of date and bring it to us. We have frozen stuff, like chicken. The shipments we order mostly have shelf-stable items like cans and boxes.”
Often, dented cans or boxes don’t sell well at large stores. When customers are paying full price, they’ll likely select an intact, pristine looking item. However, boxes of cereal for example often have a plastic bag inside the box, keeping the contents safe, regardless of the exterior.
Stephanie noted that the store often sells out-of-season items, saying, “Stores don’t sell Christmas Oreos in the summer.” Additionally, stores sometimes receive excess items which in turn become salvage items.
The Hunters purchase pallets of food from several distributors. They inspect all items, checking dates, integrity of the packaging, and retail prices. Stephanie said, “It’s very time-consuming. Every pallet we order is a risk because it’s not guaranteed that everything will be good and make money. We’ve had pallets where we’ve had to toss every single thing.”
Stephanie explained that many sell-by and best-by dates are suggestions for freshness rather than safety for consumption. She said, “In Georgia, we can sell things up to six months out of date. After that, we move items to our discount shelf which is 15 for $1 or 15 cents each.” The store wants customers to know that if purchased items are ever truly spoiled, they will remedy the situation.
While many customers are attracted to salvage shopping to save money, others simply enjoy the hunt. Stephanie said, “We have customers who need to shop here for financial reasons, and then we have people who just love a good deal. A lot of people like the thrill of the hunt to see what they can find.”
The store often receives unique items. Stephanie recalled, “We once got bottled water with a retail price of $100 for six bottles. It tasted like regular water, but it was Icelandic volcano water or something like that. Sometimes, we get stuff you can’t find anywhere around here, like Kewpie, a Japanese mayonnaise that I’d never heard of. One time, we got this marinade that we loved, but then I couldn’t find it anywhere. It’s a treasure hunt every time we open a box.”
Other international food items (such as canned Greek dolmades and Mexican candy) occasionally make appearances at the store.
Michael added, “Some families need to eat gluten free. We get a lot of gluten-free items that are normally expensive, so they’ll come here and find [them for a reduced price].”
Many items at the store have consistent prices, such as bread for $1 and standard 14 ounce cans are always 50 cents. With speciality items, the Hunters check other stores’ prices and mark them below all other prices.
If you visit the store, you’ll likely meet the Hunters’ children who help stock shelves and run the register. Another friendly face is Kearstyn Bowes who has worked with the Hunters since the beginning. In the Hunters’ words, “She’s family.”
Stephanie reflected, “Our kids have relationships with people of all ages who come into the store. They see what it takes to run the store, but for them to witness the ministry side greatly outweighs the business experience. Watching them notice people’s needs and seeing their love of people grow has been encouraging.”
For the Hunters, vision and mission comes first, and business comes second. Michael explained, “We had to figure out all of the integral parts of the business to be able to do the mission. Stephanie’s done a great job of researching, figuring things out, and asking the right people for input. We never imagined owning a business, but when you know that God put you somewhere to do something, you do it.”
Stephanie handles the everyday business of the store, saying, “I didn’t have prior business experience, but I thought that since God is telling us to do this, He must know that I can handle the business part of it. If He’s called us to it, He’ll provide the skills I need and people to help.”
The family credits the Lord with sustaining the store. “There have been several months where we’ve said, ‘Lord, we know you’ve put us here, and you’ll have to sustain us.’ He always does.”
Stephanie concluded, “Our customers know that we’re here for them and that we love them no matter what. It’s been really cool to witness them see Jesus’ love through us.”