Step Back in Time

Nichols Supermarket in Liverpool not immune to providing old-fashioned, time-honored customer service

By Margaret McCormick

Nichols Supermarket in downtown Liverpool: A place where friends and neighbors bump into each other and make plans to get together, and a place where many local teenagers land their first job.
Nichols Supermarket in downtown Liverpool: A place where friends and neighbors bump into each other and make plans to get together, and a place where many local teenagers land their first job.

Nichols Supermarket in Liverpool is more than just a place to pick up groceries.

It’s a place where friends and neighbors bump into each other and make plans to get together, and a place where many local teenagers land their first job. It’s a cornerstone of the community, like Heid’s and The Retreat, a couple blocks away.

People who shop at Nichols appreciate its friendly staff, its “no card needed’’ approach to passing on savings and its manageable size. At 20,000 square feet, it’s a bit bigger than an Aldi or Trader Joe’s store — not too small but not so big that if you get to your car and realize you forgot something you won’t want to go back in. “Get in, get out, get on with life,’’ the Nichols website reads. Need help getting your order to your car? A staff member will assist you, free of charge.

Nichols also has something that is rare in the grocery business: the regular presence on the floor and in the aisles of the storeowner.

Mike Hennigan, 64, is the face of Nichols. He lives in the community and has worked at the store in one capacity or another for more than 40 years. He has white hair, dresses in a shirt and tie and has a voice that carries throughout the store. He’s there seven days a week and if a week had eight days, he’d probably be there then, too.

Customers come to Nichols from all over Onondaga County, Hennigan says. He makes it his mission to offer excellent customer service and a retail experience that drives people to come back.

“We have become unique,’’ Hennigan says. “So many of the gigantic stores we compete with no longer operate in the traditional manner. Most don’t cut meat on site. I’m told our variety is unique. We try to do business with local people and support local businesses.’’

Nichols offers a wide selection of fresh and packaged grocery items, a bakery department, a deli department with Boar’s Head products, store-made sandwiches and convenience items (like packaged chicken, roasted in-house) and a produce department that includes in-season strawberries from Emmi Farms in Baldwinsville.

The store is a magnet for its meat department, with a team of butchers who cut beef, pork, veal and chicken seven days a week. Supply has remained steady, even during the global coronavirus pandemic.

The “Nicholini” sausage that is made in-house is comparable to sausages offered at Italian butcher shops or specialty stores, according to Mark Spadafore, a lifelong Liverpool resident and Nichols fan who lives within walking distance of the store.

Many items on the shelves at Nichols are sourced locally: eggs from Hudson Egg Farms, coffee from Paul de Lima and Utica Coffee Roasting Co., milk, ice cream and other products from Byrne Dairy, pizza dough from DiLauro’s Bakery, craft yogurt and hummus from Ithaca Milk and Ithaca Hummus – to name a few. Along with standbys like Budweiser, Miller and Genesee, there’s a nice selection of craft beer. Can’t find something you’re after? Ask for it and Hennigan will do his best to get it in, Spadafore notes.

“We are so lucky in the village of Liverpool to have Nichols and Mike Hennigan,’’ Spadafore says. “He is hands-on, on the floor all the time, talking to people and figuring out what people need. During this COVID time he is really showing mettle. It’s such an asset for the community.’’

Back in the day

Hennigan was literally born into the grocery business. His grandfather, whom he is named after, operated Hennigan’s Silver Star Market in Syracuse’s Tipperary Hill neighborhood. Hennigan’s father, Jim, joined the business and eventually purchased the Nichols family grocery store in the village of Liverpool. Nichols Discount Liquors, next door, was added in 1975.

Hennigan worked at Nichols in high school and while he was in college. Following graduation from Niagara University in 1977, he went to work for the Packaging Corporation of America. A year later, his father recruited him to come back to work at Nichols and he has been there ever since. “I’ve worked pretty much every job in the store,’’ Hennigan says. “I used to be able to operate every piece of equipment.’’

Hennigan assumed ownership of the store in the late 1980s and has seen it through many changes in the grocery industry, including the advent of scanning and new technology for ordering and tracking products. One of the biggest changes, he notes, is in competition. “There is less competition,’’ he says, “but the players left are huge. Look at all the independent stores that are gone.’’

In recent months, the coronavirus pandemic has placed Nichols and other grocery stores on the front lines of the crisis as an essential business and put Hennigan and his store’s 120 employees to the test. It hasn’t been easy, but Hennigan is proud of how the staff has responded in an ongoing emergency situation.

Plexiglass sneeze guards were quickly installed at the store’s cash registers. Floors were marked for social distancing to keep customers a cart apart, and cashiers amped up sanitary procedures to keep their stations and conveyor belts clean.

Early on in the pandemic, Hennigan worked around the clock, putting aside his administrative duties to help keep the meat cases and store shelves stocked. He reduced the size of the store’s weekly sales circular to one page, in the event there were kinks with supply. Some of the store’s older employees, many of whom are retired from other careers, opted to stay home and distance in place until they felt comfortable coming back to work. Hennigan bolstered his staff by hiring additional high school and college students who found themselves home for the spring semester. The store faced the same shortages of toilet paper, paper towels and hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes that other stores did, but has not had supply issues with things like meat and eggs.

Hennigan is grateful for his customers, who have been patient, kind and understanding — and quick to compliment his staff on their loyalty and hard work.

“We have never experienced something like this before,’’ Hennigan says, “and hopefully we never will again.’’

Photo: Mike Hennigan, owner of Nichols Supermarket in the heart of Liverpool. “I’ve worked pretty much every job in the store,’’ Hennigan says. “I used to be able to operate every piece of equipment.’’ Photo by Margaret McCormick

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