Q&A: New Sonoma Markets owner checks in

Last month, shoppers of Sonoma Market and Glen Ellen Market were surprised to hear the news that longtime owners Don Shone and Dale Downing had sold their beloved markets to a well-respected, albeit relatively unknown small family grocery chain based out of Sacramento – Nugget Markets. We sat down with Nugget Markets owner and president Eric Stille to learn more about the acquisition and his plans for his first Sonoma County stores.

What does family-owned and -operated mean when it comes to Nugget Markets?

Our first market was founded in 1926, 90 years ago, by my grandfather at age 20, with his father as his investor. Today, I run the company and work alongside my wife who runs marketing for us, and two of our three children. It's truly a family business and our 1,600 associates at our 15 markets are our family as well.

Where did the name Nugget come from?

Many, many years ago, we staged a naming contest and it was won by a young girl. I think her suggestion probably won because we had some gold columns outside the first store and one of our original investors had a gold mine.

Walk us through the backstory of Nugget's interest in Sonoma Market.

I have been pestering Don (Shone) and Dale (Downing) for years. The time finally felt right for them, I think. I love Sonoma and have been here many times. We have friends here and we love wine. Sonoma Market is the icon of Sonoma and an icon in the industry. What Don and Dale have created here is amazing and we feel so fortunate to be taking the reins from them.

What's your most pressing concern about your new markets?

We feel a lot of pressure not to mess things up (laughs). The 180 or so employees of the two markets here were likely nervous when they first heard the news. The very day that the deal was announced, we provided every Sonoma Market and Glen Ellen Market employee with an offer letter, at or above current wages and with an enhanced benefits package. I am talking about 100 percent of the employees. Now, we want to show them what it means to be part of the Nugget family.

Nugget Markets has occupied a place on Fortune magazine's prestigious, national “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for 10 consecutive years. What is your secret?

The magazine surveys 1,000 employees at our company each year. Our associates anonymously answer 58 questions concerning pride, respect, commraderie, trust and the workplace environment. The final question from Fortune is, “What makes this a great place to work?” and far and away the top answer from our associates is that, “Nugget feels like family.” That feeling is what makes us special. And it results in happy associates.

We hire the attitude! That's what we look for and that's what we see at Sonoma Market.

One of the main reasons that we participate in the Fortune “Best Places” survey each year is that it is the best possible 360 degree review for me. I find out exactly what our associates are thinking and what we are doing right and wrong.

What exactly is a Bag-Off?

Nugget dominates the California competition in the national Bag-Off Championship. This is something the National Grocers group does each year and we do it internally at every store first to have fun. Every market stages a competition and then the two best baggers from each store come to Sacramento to compete. We choose a theme – last year it was Hunger Games – and it's a night of fun and camaraderie. We look forward to bringing it to Sonoma.

In what ways do your stores support the communities they serve?

We do it very similarly to Don and Dale. The community is there to support us and we are there to support them. We have a “scrip” program where 100 percent of the proceeds are designated by the guests themselves. Supporting the community through significant projects is Kate's favorite part of her job but each store will also continue to have its own philanthropy budget.

What trends are you seeing in upscale markets?

There is a continued and growing emphasis on local items and on organic options. And beyond gluten free, we're keeping a close eye on what chefs are using in their kitchens. Our focus is securing the highest quality ingredients, and we place a huge emphasis on perishables, and on having our own chef-led kitchens in each store. We are also interested in learning from Sonoma Market's outstanding meat and seafood departments.

What changes will Sonoma and Glen Ellen customers notice?

Well, we'll be referring to them as guests not customers (laughs). And we call our employees associates. Beyond that, we'll be able to add some grocery products and expand organic offerings. And while Dale and Don bought by the case, we're able to buy by the truckload, which gives us an advantage when it comes to pricing. We think that customers will be pleasantly surprised. Any physical changes will be subtle. We'll have some middle of the night non-disruptive renovations at both stores sometime down the line.

The onus is on us to continue the success of Sonoma Market.

Contact Lorna at

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