May 21, 2018
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Down East grocer cuts profit, adds loyalty

By Sharon Kiley Mack, BDN Staff

COLUMBIA, Maine — For most businessmen, the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Owning and operating a business is about making money — the bigger the profit, the more successful the business.

But on U.S. Route 1 in Columbia — a town of about 800 people in rural Washington County — Basel Soukarieh uses a different yardstick.

For the past three weeks, Soukarieh has been selling locally caught Maine lobsters — hundreds and hundreds of them — at the same price the lobster boats charge. He makes no profit. Not one penny.

On Wednesday, the lobsters were priced at $4.10 per pound, compared with $8 or higher at other retail outlets.

He says the tourists that pass through are shocked. “The people from Massachusetts and Connecticut are very, very surprised,’” he said.

But Soukarieh’s generosity of spirit doesn’t surprise his customers along the coast of Maine.

“We try to help everybody,”’ he said this week. “Our bottom line is to help the area fishermen, farmers, customers. We cannot just take their money. I am not a greedy businessman. We have to do something to help.”

Soukarieh owns Four Corners Shopping Center, a strip of wood-clad buildings that includes the Columbia Supermarket, a dollar store, a gas station and a nightclub. It also includes his home.

“I live right here in the shopping center,” he said.

That kind of connection and commitment is what Soukarieh is trying to promote at Columbia Supermarket.

“It is a big circle,” he said. “We are part of the whole economic system here. One hand washes the other.”

Soukarieh admits that selling lobsters without a profit has increased his customer base. His lobster sales have at least doubled, he said.

He said it only makes sense: Drive to Columbia Supermarket for lobsters and while there pick up butter, corn on the cob, maybe a bottle of wine and paper towels or fixings for potato salad.

“But that absolutely is not the reason,” he asserted. “We could charge at least $1 [over the boat price] and still make a good profit. But our goal is to open the door here for the local fishermen. There is no reason to suck the people’s blood.”

He said that if he imported cheaper Canadian lobsters, he could also increase his profit. “But my customers are the Maine lobstermen. If everything in my store could be made in Maine, I would buy it.”

Soukarieh said he makes a profit running his shopping center and absolutely is in business to make money.

“We don’t give away too much for free. We’re making a living. But we don’t need to make a million dollars,” he said. “Helping the local economy is much more important to us. If we can help the customer and I’m not losing anything, why not?”

Tonya Clement of Harrington said she has shopped at the Columbia market since last Thanksgiving when Soukarieh was offering turkeys at 47 cents a pound.

“I find his prices so much better than [the alternative]. I save when I shop there,” she said.

Another customer, Marchetta Raye of Machias, said she doesn’t mind the 20-minute drive to Columbia because she saves about 20 percent on her family’s grocery bill. She, too, began shopping at Columbia when Soukarieh offered the turkey special.

“When it’s Thanksgiving there must be a turkey on every table,” Soukarieh said. “I don’t have to raise the prices.” He said the fact it is a holiday is no reason to charge more for the holiday staples.

A bonus, he said, is that his price policy has forced nearby competitors to lower their prices as well. A nearby supermarket chain had originally advertised Thanksgiving turkeys for 77 cents per pound but dropped that to 47 cents to match Soukarieh’s prices.

He said he keeps nearly all his prices 20 percent lower than the competition and offers a 5 percent discount to senior citizens on Mondays and Tuesdays.

“We have to say thank you to this generation,” he said.

He also has been selling milk at cost since November 2006. The store also remains open until 9 p.m. “That’s another way we changed the business to serve the community,” he said.

Soukarieh said the yardstick he uses to measure his business success is the overall well-being of the community.

“The community is helping me and I am helping them,” he said. “They have supported me for three years and I support them here, at the store.

“We need the dollar to be circling here in this area,” Soukarieh added, “not to go somewhere else. We need our money to stay here.”

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