For retired teacher Marie Smithline, it’s the wide selection of seafood, meats, flowers and prepared food.
For Dr. Richard Davi, 49, it’s the large and varied wine selection and the customer service. “Whenever the lines get long, they open another one,’’ he said.
For Katharine Rubino, 44, public relations director of Neiman Marcus in Coral Gables, it’s just about everything. When she’s at another store, she says, “I’ll sometimes ask myself, ‘Why am I here? I need to go to Milam’s.’ ’’
They are all loyal fans of Milam’s Markets, a four-store family-owned grocery chain that has served the Miami area for more than 30 years. Three Milam brothers and a sister are the company’s top four executives and a total of 10 family members are involved with the stores — with more family to come as they grow up, said Allen Milam, 60, the president and CEO.
The company, which is privately held, declined to disclose financial figures.
Milam said the family is originally from Lexington, Kentucky, and came to Miami in 1976 when their father Tom was named to manage the Miami office of a food distributorship.
“My father said, ‘Son, what do you want to do?’ I said I would really like to open up a grocery store some day,’’ Allen Milam said. “ ‘Guess what? Me too,’ he said. ‘You get in and learn the business and when I’m ready to retire we’ll open up a store together.’ And that’s what we did in 1984.’’
They took over a former Grand Union at 5767 Bird Rd., just west of Coral Gables. They opened as a franchisee of the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain, but five years later decided to change the name to Milam’s Market. “Piggly Wiggly’s not a big-city name,’’ Milam said.
In 1997, they added a store in Miami Springs and two years later took over and renamed the former Hyde Park store at South Dixie Highway and Southwest 32nd Avenue in Coconut Grove. The final acquisition was a store in Sunny Isles Beach in 2000. Since then they have greatly expanded the Grove store — which required the Miami City Commission to approve a zoning change in 2008 — and also purchased Grove Liquors next door and renovated the other stores.
From the beginning, Milam said, the family knew they couldn’t compete with heavyweights like Publix or Winn-Dixie or low-price stores like Walmart. So they set up stores that are somewhat similar to national chains that have entered the South Florida market more recently, like Whole Foods and Fresh Market.
In addition to carrying all the usual food-store staples, at prices about the same or slightly higher than the big supermarket chains, Milam’s has specialized in areas such as wine, meat, seafood, deli items and prepared foods.
And they say they’ve concentrated on customer service. For instance, each store has cards for customers to fill out requesting items not already on store shelves. Brother Max Milam, the chief financial officer, searches for the items and when he finds them he calls the customers. “They’ll say, ‘What, there’s a real Milam?’ ’’ Max Milam said.
To provide a soothing atmosphere, about five years ago the stores began playing classical music over the intercom. “We’ve had so many compliments, it’s incredible,’’ Allen Milam said. “I don’t know of anybody who ever complained about it.’’
University of Miami Business School professor Arun Sharma, whose specialty is marketing strategies, said the Milams appear to have chosen a winning strategy and haven’t varied from it.
Sharma, who shops at the Grove and Coral Gables-area stores, said the owners obviously realized they couldn’t compete on the basis of price and had to concentrate on maintaining a loyal following with specialty areas and by providing excellent customer service.
“The most important thing is retaining customers,’’ he said. “They’ve stuck to what they’re good at.’’
One area cited by almost all the Milam’s customers interviewed for this article was wine. In addition to wines grouped by varieties, there is also shelf after shelf of wines identified by country of origin.
Allen Milam said the large wine selection and the displays were pioneered in the late 1980s by his dad, who didn’t have enough to keep himself busy during retirement. Now the department has been taken over by another brother, Mike Milam, whose title is executive vice president. “Wine is one of the main reasons people come to our stores,’’ Allen Milam said.
The Milams have made at least one misstep, Allen Milam said. In 2007, they opened a store in Stuart more than 100 miles north of Miami. “We knew the location, we knew the store. I’ve got family up there, in-laws. We saw a lot of potential,’’ he said.
Unfortunately the purchase came right at the start of the recession. “It’s a snowbird town, so [snowbirds] didn’t come for a couple of years,’’ he said.
The family decided to pull the plug in 2010. “It was too far away. We should have known better. It was a mistake. We learn from our mistakes,’’ he said.
Milam said there are no plans now to open any additional stores. They’re happy to stick with the four they have.
“We’ve been very blessed,’’ he said. “We’ve got a great staff, a great family in the business.’’
Founded: In 1984.
Employees: About 300.
Store locations: 5767 Bird Rd.; 2969 SW 32nd Ave.; 80 Curtiss Pkwy., Miami Springs; 17100 Collins Ave., Sunny Isles Beach
Corporate headquarters: 11 N. Royal Poinciana Blvd., Miami Springs (across the street from the Miami Springs store).
Corporate executives: Allen Milam, president and CEO; Max Milam, executive vice president and CFO; Mike Milam, executive vice president; Marie Milam Dillon, secretary and treasurer.