Long before the supersizing of shopping, before stores began offering jeans and TVs under the same roof as rotisserie chickens, cosmetics, and recliners, Stanley Marvel had a thriving company selling butter and eggs.
He and an associate started Sheaffer & Marvel on Delaware Avenue in Philadelphia, delivering dairy products to restaurants and grocers who would get their meats elsewhere and vegetables from yet another source. It was as un-Costco as it got.
One hundred years later, with nearly 50 employees and 10 blue-and-maize trucks, Stanley Marvel Inc. is in a battle for relevance and customers in an industry dominated by multibillion-dollar global companies with buying power hard to match.
"It's a daily grind," the high-spirited Stanley "Lee" Marvel III, president of the food-distribution firm now based in Bensalem, said of life in his industry.
"No one is handing out guarantees."
Which is why so much of his company's business strategy has depended on change. Once a peddler of primarily two products, Stanley Marvel now offers 5,000 across a 100-mile service area covering parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.
To broaden its customer reach, it has acquired competitors with particular service niches, most recently the 2011 purchase of La Cantina Provisions Inc., a Philadelphia distributor of Mexican foods. To enhance its buying muscle, Stanley Marvel joined a national co-op.
At 62, Lee Marvel is already succession planning. He has brought daughter Bethany, 26, in as director of sales and marketing. A 2010 graduate of Pennsylvania State University, she majored in business and excelled at field hockey. In other words, she's competitive.
Bethany Marvel contends the pendulum in food distribution has swung back in favor of smaller businesses like her family's.
"Dad went through an era when bigger was better," she said. "Being independent, being local is cool now."
How lucrative it is, the Marvels would not say. Citing "a sensitive labor negotiation" at its unionized warehouse, the Marvels said they did not feel comfortable disclosing annual sales, allowing only that they are 10 times what they were when Lee Marvel took over as president in 1980.
He described industry margins as "incredibly skinny."
Still, the company has come a long way since its start. After Lee Marvel's great-uncle Stan died in 1955, Lee's father, Stanley Marvel II, took the helm. He oversaw the company's move in 1966 from Delaware Avenue (to make way for construction of I-95) to a more-efficient 12,000- square-foot warehouse at Tulip and Venango Streets in Port Richmond.
To grow the business, he expanded beyond serving individual customers - primarily independently owned restaurants - to chains such as Horn & Hardart, Howard Johnson, and Linton's. He also landed delivery accounts for more than 100 7-Eleven stores.
By the time Marvel II retired in 1985, the company was in need of more warehouse space. It moved three years later under Lee Marvel's stewardship to a facility nearly four times bigger, the current Bensalem headquarters on Ford Road.
With the chain-restaurant customers his father had secured now out of business and the 7-Eleven account lost, Lee Marvel's mission has been twofold: retaining Stanley Marvel's current customers and finding new ones.
Customer churn is what makes the industry so tough - and attentive service so critical, said Fred Consaley, a friend of Lee's since the fourth grade who joined the company in 1975 and stayed until 2000, primarily working on office operations, including bringing Stanley Marvel into the computer age.
"You can buy food product virtually anywhere," said Consaley, now finance director for the burgeoning greeting-card and home-decor business of his sister, artist Kathy Davis. "What [distributors are] providing is service. There's no shortcuts. Every need in the food business is immediate."
Vouching for that is Joe Morozin Jr., who, along with two sisters, operates the Dining Car restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia that their father, Joe Sr., started 54 years ago.
Morozin recently recalled a cold-call visit from Lee Marvel nearly 40 years ago asking for "just one chance" to handle some of their supply needs.
"He got the chance, and 38 years later, I still can't get rid of the guy," Morozin said, laughing. "He lives it and breathes it."
Rather than "just a 12-digit account," Morozin said, he feels like his business really matters to Lee Marvel.
The motivation, Marvel said, is this recognition of customers' options:
"It's so easy to give an order to a bigger guy."