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Before Wawa, there was Heritage's Dairy Stores in South Jersey

The Heritage family marks its 60th year in business in South Jersey. The business began as a milk store for a dairy farmer ancestor.

Harold “Skeeter” Heritage, 68, President of Heritage’s Dairy Stores, and his wife Pat, VP of Heritage’s Dairy Stores, outside their newest location, the 33rd store in the chain, on Grove Road in Thorofare, NJ on November 14, 2017.  They have been married 27 years.
Harold “Skeeter” Heritage, 68, President of Heritage’s Dairy Stores, and his wife Pat, VP of Heritage’s Dairy Stores, outside their newest location, the 33rd store in the chain, on Grove Road in Thorofare, NJ on November 14, 2017. They have been married 27 years.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Dairy farmer Harold "Skeets" Heritage needed a better way to sell milk to customers when the once popular home-delivery milk routes of his generation went by the wayside. So, he opened a convenience store that sold quarts of milk, bread, candy, cigarettes, and lunch meat.

The store opened on Oct. 10, 1957, in an old hoagie shop in Westville, Gloucester County. It was the first convenience store in New Jersey and the foundation of a family legacy that spans four generations in the convenience-store business. Wawa and 7-Eleven brought their chains to New Jersey years later.

These days, the Heritage family operates 33 stores in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Cumberland, Salem, and Cape May Counties that employ more than 500 people. The milk is produced by Rutter's Dairy in York, Pa., using the family's special sweet milk recipe, but the Heritages have remained loyal to the core family values.

"We are who we are," Harold "Skeeter" Heritage III,  the grandson of the company's founder, boasted with pride during an interview. "We've got our niche."

The company headquarters sits on the sprawling farm in Thorofare where the patriarch, Harold, known as Grandpop Skeets, and his brother, Sam, farmed vegetables and fruit.

During the Depression, Skeets Heritage started a dairy business with only one cow that had a broken leg. He delivered quart-size jugs from a Model A Ford. He obtained more cows and eventually purchased a milk route in Paulsboro, selling up to 200 quarts a day.

The business flourished, but home-delivery sales began to wane in the 1950s with customers frequenting supermarkets. A son, Skeets Jr.,  helped spearhead an ambitious plan to open a convenience store as a new outlet to sell milk. He visited Lawson's Milk Co. in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, to learn how that business transformed its dairy milk store into a convenience-store chain.

The first Heritage's — on Delsea Drive in Westville — had two employees and operated seven days a week.

To mark the chain's 60th anniversary, the family this year opened its 33rd store on the same October date that the first store opened in 1957. The new store, on Grove Road near Kings Highway in the Thorofare section of West Deptford, is sleek and upscale with granite countertops at the coffee station and a large, mounted flat-screen television that customers can watch while standing in line.

The elder Skeeter, 68, designed the store. His wife, Pat, who began working for the company as a counter sales clerk when she was 17, selected the colors and decorated the front entrance with a fall-harvest arrangement of mums.

"It's absolutely a wonderful company to work for,"  said Gretchen Matlock, 57, of Paulsboro, a district supervisor who has been with the company for 32 years. "Everybody treats everybody like family."

Privately held, Heritage's ranks 189th among the top convenience-store chains, according to CSP Magazine, a trade journal for the $682 billion convenience retail business. It has positioned itself  in an increasingly competitive market dominated by industry giants Wawa and 7-Eleven as a friendly family-run neighborhood store.

"They seem to run a good operation, an honest operation," said Sal Risalvato, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline-Convenience-Automotive Association. "They should be very proud."

According to family legend, Skeeter Jr. made a handshake agreement with Grahame Wood, founder of Wawa Inc., in the 1960s, and Wawa employees were sent to work at Heritage's stores to learn the business when Wood added stores to the family's milk business. For years, Wawa didn't open any stores in direct competition with Heritage's,  but that changed after Wood's death in 1982, Skeeter III said.

A Wawa spokeswoman couldn't confirm the anecdote, but Richard R. George, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph's University, said it would seem likely that Wood would seek to replicate the Heritage business model.

"Good artists copy; great artists steal [ideas]. I think that's what happened here," George said.

Wawa opened its first store in 1964 in Folsom, and branched into New Jersey in 1968 with its second store. It now operates more than 700 stores in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Florida (and, soon, D.C.). There are seven Wawa stores within a five-mile radius of the newest Heritage's store in West Deptford.

Six of the nine children in the blended Heritage family that includes two sets of twins work in the family business. They began with entry-level jobs, typically as youngsters, and had to learn every aspect of the business.

"I tell my kids, 'In this company you don't get appointed to a position,' " the elder Skeeter said. " `You earn that position.' "

Skeeter Heritage IV, 36, one of three living descendants with the name Skeeter, said he could not imagine working anyplace else. His son, age 5, is called "Skeets" to reduce confusion with his father and grandfather.

"I love our business. I just want to work hard for Heritage and perpetuate the family business," said Skeeter IV.

His sister, Katie Tierno, 33, a pricing coordinator, jumped at the chance to rejoin the family business two years ago after she was laid off by a food-processing company in Chicago. Another sibling, Jenn, 18, one of the youngest in the brood along with her twin, Jessica, is a guest service manager at a Glassboro store, where big brother Matthew is the manager.

"This is my dream job," Tierno she said.

The business has remained popular largely because of the strong family ties, brand name, and special touches that maintain a loyal customer base, said Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, professor of marketing at Rutgers University-Camden. Heritage's still offers fresh-sliced deli meats, a long-standing tradition that accounts for about 30 percent of sales.

Besides typical convenience-store products, the company offers items that carry the Heritage name including milk, ice cream, and breakfast sandwiches — the "Heri-egg" and free coffee on Sundays. The company also wholesales its candy, tobacco, and groceries from its Heritage's Wholesale Co., which supplies its stores with over 75 percent of the products sold.

"That's the way to stay in business," said Kaufman-Scarborough.

In recent years, the family has sold or closed several stores to focus on more profitable stores. Renovations are also underway at several locations. But Skeeter Heritage III, the patriarch who remains very active in daily operations along with his wife, said the family has no immediate plans to expand the business or add gasoline stores.

"Even though they don't have the scale of Wawa, they have a niche," George said. "Heritage will continue to survive and do well."

The family is not overly worried about competition from Baltimore-based Royal Farms, which is making inroads in South Jersey with stores open or coming soon in Gloucester City, Bellmawr, Clarksboro, and Magnolia, all within a two-mile radius or less from Heritage's stores.

"You don't have to win a fight. Just be the last one standing," Skeeter Heritage III said. "We make a living doing this. To us it's life."