Story by Gail Parsons on 09/06/2019Peter Howell is back at the helm of the Fort Riley Commissary and he is ready to make changes.
Howell was the commissary officer from 2009 to 2016. He left for a similar position at Fort Gordon, Georgia, then from Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, oversaw operations of nine military commissaries from Wisconsin to Arkansas before returning to Fort Riley.
He has been on the job since June 23 and is moving forward with an addition he believes customers will appreciate.
"I'm looking at taking the north area near the deli and bakery and making it more of a cafe, where people not only purchase their ready-to-eat meals in the store, but have a place to sit and eat them as well," he said.
Several years ago, the area had a salad bar. When that was taken out cases of water and drinks were put in the area, which will now be moved to aisle nine.
"Our lunch crowd has grown considerably," he said. "We expect it to continue to grow as the Soldiers redeploy. So, we're going to make it easier for them to make a purchase for a quick lunch or dinner and have a place to sit as well instead of having to go somewhere else."
He expects the caf to be open by October and the employees have been challenged to come up with the name. All employees can submit ideas, but the deli and bakery employees will make the final decision.
The caf is one part of his overall plan to make the commissary a place Soldiers and their families want to shop for their groceries. To bring his plan to fruition he is calling on his experience in the commissary business, in which he started in 1979.
His first commissary job was as an intermittent store worker at McConnell Air Force Base, Wichita, Kansas, where his father was stationed.
"Stocking shelves, cleaning freezers you name it, and I worked my way up through management," he said.
In 1990, he left the commissary business.
"I went into warehousing and distribution, and from there I did national sales, regional sales and running fabrication plants," he said. "One day, (16 years later) I woke up commuting three hours a day in Los Angeles and decided it was time to come back."
Managers often advise their subordinates that if they are not happy with what they are doing they should find something else.
"I took that advice and found something else," he said. "And couldn't be happier with that choice."
From his days as an intermittent store worker to the challenges of management, he said he has always found pleasure in serving our active-duty military and their families.
"I believed in the benefits, and I still do," he said. "I think it's a form of non-pay compensation to help them stretch their food dollar. And I enjoy doing that."
His work pleasure is derived from watching people come in the doors and leave feeling a little better than when they came in. He said he knows shopping is a chore and especially when a spouse is deployed the parent at home has a heavy burden. He sees it written on their faces when they walk in the door.
"Nothing gives me more pleasure to be able to have them come in with one face and leave with a [happier] one," he said. "(We do that) by making sure we provide the best customer service that we can and have all the products that are on their grocery list at the best possible price overall."
What customers do not see is what goes on behind the scenes for Howell to make it possible. The biggest challenge he said is working with the suppliers and through the government process to procure the goods they put on the shelves.
Meeting the challenge takes persistence and tenacity, he said.
"Just keep working it, jumping the hurdles, moving the walls, and continuing to communicate with those that can help," he said.
At Fort Riley, he faces an added challenge.
"Large deployments make it very challenging for us to maintain the hours of operation and the days a week (we're open)," he said. "In our agency that is based a lot on sales. And with the heavy deployments, sales are really low. We're hopeful that when some of this redeployment starts happening, we can start to pick the sales back up along with getting the shelves full and stave off any potential reductions in the hours of operation."
He said he is committed to making the Fort Riley commissary the place people want to go for their groceries and hopes people who may have stopped using the store will come back and give them another try.