To some of its critics, business is a mechanism by which the rich exploit the poor. Occasionally they're right. Usually, though, the willing exchange of money, labor, goods and services benefits parties as diverse as America itself.
You can't get more diverse than a church and a grocery store, but when Brian Hench approached the members of Union Chapel Church about buying their building and converting it into a fresh-foods market and café, he set in motion a transaction that – if all goes as planned – will benefit congregants and consumers alike.
“We're kind of scrambling, looking for a place to land. But it was the right decision (to sell),” said Gary Reiber, pastor of the church at Union Chapel and Coldwater roads on Fort Wayne's north side. “The building is dated, and we don't want to be in the fastest-growing area of Allen County in a building with no curb appeal. We want to allow God to do his work.”
To Hench, however, the 51-year-old church building is the diamond in the rough he plans to polish into the kind of unique culinary experience he's long envisioned – and believes others will want to experience.
As I reported Saturday, the 34-year-old Hench hopes to open what could be the first of several teds markets in the church, which would be renovated and expanded in a $2.5 million enterprise that could create as many as 35 jobs. But to Hench, teds would be more than just a business. It would represent the logical extension of a family legacy, and the manifestation of his passion for good food.
“Food has always been part of my history,” Hench explained – a history that extends back to his grandfather, Ted Hench, one of the founders of the Ohio-based Chief Super Market Inc. and one of the inspirations for the new company's name. Brian Hench grew up around food, and remembers being given a choice by his mother: either cook or do the dishes. He chose the former.
And so perhaps it is not surprising that he remembers being impressed by a presentation on prepared foods at a Wegman's Food Market when he was just 10, or that while working in marketing for Johnson and Johnson after graduating from the University of Notre Dame he was equally fascinated by a cooking seminar at a Publix grocery store.
It was that affinity for food that eventually drew Hench back to Chief, where he most recently oversaw the fresh food department but realized an opportunity was going untapped.
“We were discussing our next moves. How do we stay relevant? And I had the idea of a smaller specialty store,” said Hench, who lives in Huntertown and has been impressed by Fort Wayne's efforts to revitalize downtown and its north-side growth, spurred in part by the new Parkview Regional Medical Center.
That growth and each access to major roads and highways makes the Coldwater-Union Chapel intersection an ideal location for a relatively small (10,000-square-foot) store that will not only sell fresh foods but will also offer a café that will use those ingredients in preparing its menu.
“I want food to be front and center, for people to eat well in a good, wholesome casual atmosphere,” said Hench, who wants to appeal both to aficionados and to novices who don't know much about good food but are eager to learn. He plans to offer as many locally grown or produced goods as possible.
Although there are no similar stores nearby – Fresh Market has a location in southwest Fort Wayne – Hench knows he won't be the only source for fresh foods, which along with organic goods are increasingly prominent in large supermarkets. Will teds' blend of fresh and traditional foods, café and smaller size be unique enough to attract customers?
And even if it is, what will happen if – as I reported in August – North Carolina-based Earth Fare opens a healthy foods store in Fort Wayne. Possible locations include the former Scott's store just down Coldwater from the church.
Not even Hench is sure both teds and Earth Fare could survive such close proximity.
Which means that, if the County Plan Commission approves the proposal, teds' longevity will be determined by its ability to offer customers a good product at a competitive price.
In a new location, the church might grow. But from the same location a new business could grow as soon as next spring, providing jobs to workers, taxes to government and health and enjoyment to customers.
And, yes, Hench may prosper -- which seems only fair, since he is also assuming the risk of failure.
People and politicians should remember that the next time they criticize commerce or demonize, minimize or punish those who succeed honestly in it.