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Store runs ahead of the pack

TribTown • Selection, attention to detail have kept Stroheckers in business
by: JIM CLARK, A West Hills institution dating to 1902, Lamb’s at Stroheckers is best known for its large selection, including niche or hard-to-find items.

There's a slogan at this store in Southwest Portland that Eric Davis fears might sound a bit outdated.

Employees know it by heart and customers can read it on the foot mat as they walk in the door: 'Serving Portland's finest families in the Portland area since 1902.'

'The Stroheckers came up with that,' says Davis, the affable store manager at Lamb's at Stroheckers, 2855 S.W. Patton Road. 'The neighborhood's changed. It does sound a bit elitist.'

There's no question the neighborhood has changed since German immigrants Armand and Martha Strohecker opened the store - then called Mt. Zion Grocery - in 1902 at the site of their dairy farm.

It's unclear when the Mt. Zion name fell out of fashion, or where it originated, but along the way the Stroheckers dropped it and used their surname instead.

Davis says the store's history is notable. 'There's no question it's the oldest (grocery store) in Portland, and possibly the West Coast,' he says, having worked for decades as a food broker along the West Coast, selling food to places like Stroheckers.

Not only has the neighborhood changed, the marketplace has as well.

Through the years, Stroheckers has seen all-in-one grocery superstores pop up everywhere, and specialty stores New Seasons Market and Whole Foods Market tap into a big part of its customer base.

So how has the store competed? By adding more, more, more.

Its structure, rebuilt in 1986, now is a 27,000-square-foot behemoth with four stories (two of which are retail) that house a bakery, pharmacy, espresso bar, butcher, deli and florist, and even a post office branch.

The cavernous basement has been converted into a wine cellar that boasts 3,500 products, hosts wine classes through Portland Community College and bills itself as 'Portland's largest selection of fine wines.'

There's even a liquor store in the rear of the wine cellar, a tip actor Keanu Reeves might have picked up on when he visited Portland in the 1980s to film a movie.

'He came in at 7 a.m. and said, 'Is your liquor store open?' ' Davis recalls, laughing. 'I said, 'No. Don't I know you?' And he came down and got a sandwich.'

The Strohecker family ran the place until 1995, when they stepped down and United Grocers ran it for two years. In 1997, Lamb's Markets, a Wilsonville-based grocery chain, bought the store on a 20-year lease.

Davis says it's been a constant challenge, but he thinks his store has settled into a comfortable niche by staying true to what customers want. That means carrying not only unusual and hard-to-find products, but carrying the entire line of them.

'We probably go deeper in any special category,' he says. 'If it's saffron, I'm sure I have more. If it's vanilla, chocolate, British foods. I'm deeper in those categories. Mustards, Spanish foods, French foods, Italian stuff. … People call around and then call us. I tell them if I don't have it, you're probably not going to find it.'

From the store's extensive truffle selection to its locked glass cabinet of high-end balsamic vinegars (ranging up to $200 a bottle), selection is the name of the game.

'Does it sell a lot? No. But I have it,' Davis says.

Not everything is upscale. Displays of McVitie's cookies, a British favorite, fly off the display racks, Davis says. 'We sell more of these than Oreos.'

The perfect companion to the tasty 'biscuits,' as the Brits call them: loads of the highly popular PG Tips, billed as Britain's No. 1 tea.

From marzipan pigs to real maple sugar candy, shoppers like what they see at Stroheckers, and keep coming back for more. Some regulars are said to swing by not once, not twice, but three times a day. Davis knows them all by name.

'It's not just a grocery store, it's a neighborhood institution,' says Barbara Anderson, a 'third-generation Stroh's shopper' who tossed pasta, sauce and other dinner fixings in her cart one recent morning.

'Every kid in this neighborhood has worked here,' she says. 'My son worked here all through high school. This is home.'

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