written by Emily Buckley, editor in chief
In 1981, Lee and Shari Badger entered into the grocery business purchasing Jack’s Foodtown, a 9,000-square-foot store, in Smithfield. Over the following decade they remodeled the store several times, doubling its size by 1991. To accommodate the rapid growth at the north end of Cache Valley, the Badgers closed Jack’s in 1994 and opened the doors to a new, even larger store, directly across the street: the first Lee’s Marketplace, which included a pharmacy, deli, scratch bakery, and other expanded departments.
Five years later they opened their second location, in Logan, again with new expansions and specialty services. Today the Badgers operate five 45,000-square-foot grocery stores (in Smithfield, Logan, North Odgen, Heber City, and North Salt Lake) and two Lee’s Ace Hardware stores (in Smithfield and North Salt Lake).
“With all of our growth, we’ve taken the best of what was there and added to it,” Shari said. Lee passed away from ALS, a nervous system disease that weakens muscles and impacts physical function, in 2009, but his legacy for greeting customers and considering them guests in his stores continues today.
“He wanted things to be bright, clean, and friendly,” Shari said. “Before he passed away we had a jingle on the radio, ‘You’ve got a friend at Lee’s.’ It kind of got put on the back burner for a while, but in the last year we’ve decided to bring that back. We really want our community to know that they do have a friend at Lee’s. I would stack our team up against any other — they go out of their way to take care of our guests and make sure things are right for them. Lee would be happy about that — and that [the jingle] is back.”
Jonathan Badger, one of Lee and Shari’s three children and the current president and CEO of Lee’s Marketplace, says, with a smile, he began his career playing hide-and-seek at age 2 in Jack’s. “Really, when I was 14 or 15 I started by sorting garbage and recycled glass pop bottles and bagging groceries,” he said.
Since then he has worked in every department, with exception of pharmacy, which allows him to understand the work his team members do each day, and pitch in if needed.
The corporate mission of Lee’s Marketplace is to make grocery shopping enjoyable. “Grocery shopping is something everyone has to do, but is maybe not everyone’s favorite thing to do,” Jonathan said. “We want to be the place that makes it enjoyable — somewhere people want to come back to.”
Community involvement is important to the Badgers. “As businesses grow it is sometimes hard to maintain the same thing over and over,” Jonathan said. “Our goal is always to stay family-focused and really grow with the communities we serve.”
One way they do this is by staying involved with and supporting the communities they do business in, through charitable programs like School Cents (in which they donate a portion of purchases to local schools), the Lee’s Cares Foundation (which honors their founder, husband, and father and raises money for ALS research), and many other donations, monetary and in-kind, that go toward food banks, other non-profit organizations, community events, city and university programs, parades, and more.
They also host Easter egg hunts, Halloween trick-or-treating, and summer and holiday food shows throughout the year, and it isn’t uncommon on a hot summer day to find a Lee’s team member greeting guests at the door with an ice-cold bottle of water.
“A lot of times, at these events, I step back and think, ‘Wow! Lee would be so excited to watch what is going on,’” Shari said. “He’d especially be happy to watch his son. I work with a lot of grocers, and there aren’t very many that have the legacy we have — they don’t have a Jonathan to carry on the work. We love what we do, it is part of our culture, and we hope it shows.”