John Spencer’s boyhood home was a cattle ranch in Santa Maria where his dad raised prime beef. One summer while in middle school, his dad taught him exactly where and how to plant cuttings for a cabernet sauvignon vineyard. At fifteen the Righetti High School student coveted a car. His dad expected him to earn it if he wanted it, thus, began his life’s career in the grocery business. His first job was “meat clean-up” at Williams Brothers Store #7 — the Santa Maria store that would become the first independent neighborhood grocery owned and operated by John and Beatrice Spencer.
“We just celebrated our 20-year anniversary owning Spencer’s Fresh Markets,” said Spencer. The couple currently own and operate stores in Santa Maria at 3580 Orcutt Road and Morro Bay at 2650 Main Street with approximately 100 employees. www.spencersfreshmarkets.com. Note the word fresh in their name!
But first Spencer would experience intensive on-the-job training to learn the grocery business inside and out. He worked his way up at Williams Brothers to store manager before he was promoted to operations supervisor overseeing 19 stores. “I preferred being out in the stores. When Vons purchased Williams Brothers they saw I knew first hand what was going on so kept me on.”
For four years Spencer did the forecasting and budgeting for The Vons Companies. When he realized a couple of the locations were not performing up to corporate standards, he worked out a deal with then CEO Phillip Hawkins to purchase the Santa Maria store.
Meanwhile, Young’s Market owners Phil and Yvonne Young wanted to retire from their Morro Bay store. “They liked how I ran Williams Brothers when I was the store manager. We put together a handshake deal and they are still my landlords although we lost Phil a couple years ago.”
“My time spent with Vons is probably the reason we are still in business today,” said Spencer. He added his stores operate professionally using corporate procedures while remaining a neighborhood grocer offering many local products.
Spencer still prefers his time in the stores. “I like that our people are neighbors serving neighbors. Customers can talk to the store manager and request the products they want to see us carry.”
Many local products got their start or expanded their popularity at Spencer’s Fresh Markets. “We develop personal partnerships with our local product owners,” said Spencer. “Darren’s Berries started in a fruit stand then approached us to be his fruit stand. Twenty years later we’re still carrying Darren’s Berries.”
Spencer’s was first to feature Central Coast grown avocados. Customers will also find a variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables, including early season strawberries. Santa Maria-style barbecue meats and products, Brian’s Bread made in Atascadero, Cayucos Hot Sauce and local wines can be found at Spencer’s. Many partnerships started during the Thursday afternoon Farmer’s Market at the Morro Bay store.
Spencer noted Frank Bouget was a find for Spencer’s Fresh Markets. “He trained in French culinary schools and can bake anything. I met him in the late 1980s when he first arrived in the United States.” Spencer lured him to Williams Brothers and then re-hired him in 2010 to handle all the store’s fresh bakery items and special orders out of the Santa Maria store.
“We have fun, too,” said Spencer. “When we added Cal Poly Eggnog, Frank came up with Cal Poly Eggnog Cream Pie. He also created Raspberry Pinot Noir Cream Pie.“
The market produces its own salsas and a variety of sausages from a fully customized meat department. The deli features prime Boar’s Head products and creates fresh signature sandwiches, salads, pasta dishes and deep fried and roasted chicken.
Spencer gets teary-eyed talking about how he met and hired Doug Carroll, popularized on KVEC’s Dave Congalton Show as Pastor Doug. “It all started as Free Flapjack Fridays on Sunny Country. (From his wheelchair) Pastor Doug would cook with me during customer appreciation breakfasts. Then he created his own recipes pulling products off the shelves and serving samples in the stores.” All the while Carroll battled Multiple Sclerosis with a positive attitude, infectious laugh and stories that inspired all who met him until he succumbed at 54 in 2011.
Spencer can be heard regularly on KVEC-Radio promoting local seasonal products and Spencer’s Fresh Markets’ deals of the week.
Beatrice still works with her husband in the office. They married August 1, 1981 and have four daughters, Caitlin, Kristine, Kayla and Cameryn, each a graduate or current student of Cal Poly.
Note: John Spencer was also the exclusive market to support the Kelsey Wine Program that benefits the Morro Bay Maritime Museum.