Indie Awards: By the Pound, off-the-cuff

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Winner: Hidden Gem

Sponsored by: Kerrytown Market & Shops

By the Pound

  • Owner: Glenn Bourland
  • Founded: 1982
  • Full-time employees: 3
Glenn Bourland | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Glenn Bourland | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Ever wonder what businesses used to be like before technology ruled the world? Well, all you have to do to see it firsthand is visit By the Pound on South Main Street.

Owner Glenn Bourland does things the old fashioned way. His store doesn’t have a website. And despite the fact that he’s got more than 1,000 different items in his store, he doesn’t have a computer. Bourland keeps inventory in his head, placing a few orders with his suppliers every day. And he has dozens of suppliers; there are 80 bulk teas and 180 bulk spices, alone.

Even the sales method is old school; items are sold in bulk at competitive prices, combined with tons of personal service.

It’s a style Bourland developed on the job, in a trial by fire.

He and his wife lived in California, where Bourland was an acupuncturist. But his wife is from Michigan and always wanted to move back. When she got a job offer in Ann Arbor in 1994, they made the transition. In 1995, Bourland bought By the Pound, which was already an established business, having been founded in 1982.

The bad news was he knew nothing about retail, and he faced a steep learning curve. The good news was that he always loved people and enjoyed the organizational part of business, and he bought a business that needs never-ending organization. By the Pound features grains and pastas, coffees and teas, herbs and spices, snacks and candies, baking supplies … the list goes on.

Business is pretty steady year-round, Bourland says, but improves when the weather starts to turn cooler every year. “My business starts picking up when you turn on the oven and it’s a good heat,” he tells people.

It’s a unique store. Bourland says, “I’m not aware of any other bulk food store that has such a variety of quality products. … People tell me all the time we have stuff here they can’t find anywhere else.” What he really thrives on, however, are the interactions with his clientele. “What I like about my store is, I like my customers,” he says. “I’ve never had one day where I didn’t want to go to work.”

The feeling is mutual. As he was being interviewed, one of his loyal customers poked her head in the door to volunteer that, “Glenn is never grumpy!”

Another long-time shopper, Julie Gallup, picked up that thought. “Glenn’s just a nice guy,” she said. “Always smiling.”

Another reason to keep coming back to By the Pound, Gallup said, is “because I save money and I like the quality of the fresh food. I don’t like buying spices in jars; you don’t know how old they are. I don’t use anything pre-packaged. I make my own spaghetti sauce from my grandmother’s recipe.”

Bourland gets a lot of cooking enthusiasts in his store, and while he enjoys cooking himself, he doesn’t consider himself an expert. That’s where 18-year employee Michael Leech comes in. “He’s my resource,” Bourland says.

Leech specializes in Indian cuisine, and loves to give advice to customers. But he likes to get advice, too. “It’s rewarding dealing with customers,” Leech said. “There’s always interesting things to learn.”

Bourland said, “I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked questions and another customer in the store provides an answer, then someone in the next aisle gives another suggestion, and soon there’s a whole conversation going on about the best ways to prepare a certain food. It’s just that kind of place. It’s also the kind of place where brand new cooks as well as seasoned ones can feel equally comfortable —and inspired.”

Asked why he’s worked in the store for almost two decades, Leech said, “Glenn is a big part of it. He’s the boss, but he listens to me, too. If I have some advice, he’s always respectful, and that’s not always the case (with other bosses).”

Kyle Poplin

Kyle Poplin is co-founder and editor of The Ann magazine.