Community members: Mega Foods’ sudden departure leaves big gap

After 20 years of business in Lebanon, Mega Foods shut its doors Jan. 30.

The family-owned company cited “big change in the community’s shopping patterns and increasing competition in the Albany area” as its reason for having to say goodbye to Lebanon.

“There’s just more competition in the area, and customer count was slowly going down,” said Stephen Ellis, vice president and family member. “We’re going against franchises and people that have owners that are a lot bigger than one human like my mom and dad. It’s disheartening. I’ve known all these people my whole life and grown up here and in the other stores.”

Not only was it a loss for the family, but employees – who were given a 10-day notice – were left scrambling for a new source of income, and many nonprofits in the area noted the sting they felt from the news.

Kris Latimer, of the Boys & Girls Club, said they will feel the loss “for sure.” Mega Foods sponsored big Club events, donated cash and gave discounts on purchases for the food program.

“Mega Foods never, ever, said ‘no’ to the school district,” noted Julie Miller, of the Welcome Center. “I’ve never had them tell me ‘no’ for anything I’ve ever asked.”

The Road Maggots used Mega Foods for their annual food drive that supplies food for the River Center’s food boxes, said John Roth, a member of the motorcycle club.

“How many stores in this town would let you park six Harley Davidson’s across the front of the store and gather food?” Roth asked.

Mega Foods sold product for the food drive at a discounted cost, and also helped the Maggots with the backpack program for Riverview School, he said.

“Mega Foods has been a very willing partner in all of this,” he said.

Shelly Garrett, executive director of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, said Mega Foods has been a Cornerstone Partner of the chamber for years, and supported chamber events and fundraisers with food and catering. Garrett’s list goes on about the myriad ways the company supported local businesses and nonprofits.

“I try and look for some good out of things that make me sad. It was hard to do this time, as they will be missed so much. If we can learn one thing, it is the importance of shopping locally,” Garrett said.

Mega Foods supplied the cake for the Strawberry Festival’s “largest strawberry shortcake,” handed out thousands of pieces of candy during the parade, offered discounts to The Optimists for their annual Strawberry Festival pancake fundraiser, supported Cast with a Cop, gave money to churches, and offered location for Girl Scout sales, car washes and other fundraisers.

“Mega Foods has demonstrated a long tradition of community support for many of our nonprofits,” Garrett said.

Ellis said he couldn’t even list every way they’ve helped, as oftentimes students and organizations would come in and ask for help, and Mega Foods would say ‘yes,’ even as business declined over the last five years.

“We were involved and tried to do everything possible,” he said. “That’s what we’re all about, community. We gotta give back to where we live.”

Though Ellis said their pricing in groceries couldn’t always be lowest in the city, they really tried to hit it in the meat and produce sales by providing Northwest local product at low cost.

Mega Foods held meat sales twice a year that drew in lines spanning across the store, he said. They would bring in a truck load of meat and sell it at-cost.

“We’d bring out our tables on the floor and used to cut it all in front of them.”

There’d be a big chunk of meat and the customer would say how thick a cut they wanted.

“You don’t find that in stores any more because most people package their meat outside and bring it in,” Ellis said.

He plans on sending postcards to the Lebanon and Albany community when they hold the meat sale in Salem, he added, so community members can continue to stock up on such a great deal.

Garrett also mentioned the hometown feeling one would get when shopping at Mega Foods.

“We knew the employees and they knew us. Most folks are just as sad about the employees as they are about losing this wonderful Lebanon business,” she said.

Nicole James, who worked at Mega Foods for seven years, was surprised when management announced the closure, despite rumors, because they were beginning to improve the store, she said.

“It’s like our family’s breaking up,” she said.

Barbara Campbell, who’s been at Mega Foods for almost 29 years, was on vacation when the closure was announced.

“I never dreamt this would happen,” she said.

Campbell is concerned she will have a hard time finding a job offer with insurance due to her age.

Mega Foods began as Food 4 Less in Salem in 1988, then the Ellis family acquired the Lebanon location in 1998, Albany in 2000, and Woodburn in 2002. The Salem and Woodburn stores continue to remain open.

When Steve Vanderhoof, manager at Safeway in Lebanon, heard about the closure, he walked across the street and offered the employees a chance to apply for open positions in his store, James said.

“He said, ‘We’ll try to take on as many people as we can,’ and he told me to send the best of the best, and so I sent people over there,” she said.

James, along with seven of her colleagues, accepted a job offer at Safeway and was able to begin right away. Others chose not to take a job there for various reasons.

Amy Marker, who’s been at Mega Foods for six years, turned down a job offer at Safeway because she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue working in grocery.

“He was super nice and was willing to offer a job almost on the spot, because he knew what we were going through,” she said of Vanderhoof. “I really appreciated him being so open and willing to hire us.”

Marker is considering returning to school or find something she can retire from.

“I’m trying to start a family, and this was our backbone, and now it’s time to find a new backbone,” Marker said.