Michael Helzer Serves Up Innovation Fresh, Daily at Raley’s

In more than two decades with Raley’s Markets, Michael Helzer has built on its strong history of originality, ensuring that its stores are much more than just places to buy food

Raley's new Market 5-ONE-5 locations are built like neighborhood markets and offer a variety of healthy, affordable options. Photo by Garry McLeod

When Michael Helzer got his first construction job in Sacramento, California, in 1990, it was to to build a Raley’s supermarket. Five years later, he joined the Raley’s team, and he hasn’t looked back as he’s helped the California-based grocer expand to more than 120 locations throughout its home state and Nevada, develop new brands, and operate its own in-house cabinet and fixture business.

Michael Helzer poses in one of Raley’s newest assets, Capital Millworks, an in-house fabrication business that will allow Raley’s to produce shelving, cabinets, metalwork, and more for a variety of clients in retail, education, healthcare, and other industries.

“After 23 years, I still enjoy coming to work,” says Helzer, now Raley’s director of store design and construction. “I loved building tree forts as a kid, and I’ve been in construction since I was 15. Raley’s is built on trust, honesty, and integrity, and I’m treated like family here. They allow me the autonomy to operate my business, be innovative, and think outside the box.”

Helzer is continuing a tradition of innovation that Raley’s has fostered since its 1935 inception. The company was the first to introduce a “drive-in” market and also the first to break down the wall that used to separate drug stores and grocery stores, to create a full-service market.

The company’s outside vendor partners have been impressed with it and Helzer’s forward-thinking approach as well. “Mike has always been an innovator, and it shows,” says Mark Marvelli, director of commercial and retail architecture at Coact Designworks. “Raley’s isn’t your typical grocer, and its decisions to focus on health, develop new concepts, and tailor stores to its communities is reflected in its reputation.”

With laser focus on cultivating its reputation in the health-and-wellness space (Raley’s has eliminated all tobacco products from its stores, and it has removed sodas and candy from its check-out lines in favor of healthier snack options), the grocer continues to embody a spirit of innovation that now includes new business models for the 21st century. Here, Helzer discusses them with American Builders Quarterly.

Raley’s new flagship store, in Truckee, CA, shown here in a rendering, will be a 39,000-square-foot space with a lodge-style aesthetic. Courtesy of Coact Designworks

A New Flagship Store in Truckee

Although Truckee, California, represents a new market for Raley’s, it’s one that Helzer says the company has worked toward for nearly 15 years. The company pursued another location in the area for almost seven years, but various design hurdles—coupled with the economic recession that started in 2008—led the company to walk away from its original plans. However, given the Raley family’s presence in the area and a longstanding desire to be in the Truckee community, new plans were formed at a new site, and at long last they came to fruition.

The 39,000-square-foot space was designed to fit community design guidelines, with natural wood elements reminiscent of lodge-style architecture. The space also honors Raley’s commitment to sustainability, though, with technology for both energy conservation and water management. Additionally, the company used a local sawmill to fall and mill the trees that will be used in the store’s interior, and once they’re milled and dried, they will be transported to Raley’s millworks shop to be cut to size and finished.

As with most Raley’s locations, the store will be much more than just a place to pick up groceries. It will be a full-service store with assortments of healthy and high-quality food, including natural and organic offerings. It will also place an emphasis on specialty services, including restaurant-quality grab-and-go options.

Even with a revived economy, Helzer says, the local approval process was not a quick walk-in-the-park, but it was helped along significantly by the company’s willingness to incorporate the community’s ideas and desires into the project.

“We want to be able to come into a new location and reach the local community,” Helzer says. “Beyond sharing with them what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, and what we’d like to do to get their takes, we also make sure to ask, ‘If you had the chance to make some input on this store, what would you like to see?’ It’s not lip service. There are plenty of examples that get incorporated into the design, from signage to incorporating local themes into the structure.”

A New Way Forward With Market 5-ONE-5

Market 5-ONE-5 is a new, modern market that’s focused on consumers’ well-being, providing more affordable options that will help people eat well. The first location opened May 15 of last year, in the R Street District of downtown Sacramento, California. Healthier eating drives the store’s entire setup and design, from team members that include chefs, urban farmers, and nutrition experts to an environment where shoppers can eat and socialize, with indoor and outdoor dining spaces connected to cafés, bistros, and a wine bar.

“It’s unlike anything that exists in the marketplace,” Helzer says. “It’s reminiscent of a neighborhood market founded on the principle that discovering quality and nutritious food should be easy, accessible, and affordable.”

Every item in Market 5-ONE-5 is curated on three core values: organic living, nutrition, and education (thus the “ONE” in the name). The two fives refer to the five essential nutrients in foods (carbohydrates, fats, proteins, minerals, and water) and the five senses used when you eat food. Service items in the store are made fresh daily, and team members are directed to create a unique customer experience on a daily basis.

Sacramento soon won’t be the only location to feature this brand. Helzer says that Raley’s is currently planning two new locations for Market 5-ONE-5 in the coming year, and it’s investigating other suburban neighborhoods throughout northern California that could be a good fit.

Raley’s Market 5-ONE-5 produce section
The interior of one of Raley’s Market 5-ONE-5 locations, which also offer plenty of fresh foods. Photo by Garry McLeod

In-House Talent Finally Gets Out-Of-House Recognition

Raley’s has been in the cabinet and fixture business for more than 80 years, and it has cultivated not only a talented team but state-of-the-art automated equipment. As the business has grown over the decades, Helzer says, the company has received several inquiries about building fixtures for others, and it finally decided to do so recently.

In March 2018, Raley’s acquired a local cabinet business that had been in place for 30 years. Its new entity, called Capitol Millworks, was up and running by early July. “We have the ability to design and fabricate both millwork and metals for retail locations, schools, hospitals, airports, hotels, and much more,” Helzer says. “We welcome all opportunities and are in the process of developing a website to extend this service to others.”

Asked if he (or anyone else at the company) minds the idea of other stores using the same kinds of fixtures that have been proprietary at Raley’s for nearly half a century, Helzer brushes off the notion immediately. “We love to set the bar for others,” he says.