Nourishing the community

Matt and Janelle Leiseth are deeply involved in initiatives to build community spirit, both personally and through Matt’s leadership of the Hornbacher’s supermarkets.


Nancy Edmonds Hanson

When families in the F-M area think of dinner, a good share of them think of Hornbacher’s. The six supermarkets in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo provide the ingredients for hundreds of thousands of meals every day.

What they likely aren’t daydreaming about as they chop the veggies and grill the meat is the rest of the story – a tradition of nourishing all kinds of good works that has propelled president Matt Leiseth since he joined the company fresh out of school with a business degree from Concordia College. For him and his wife Janelle, that’s as important a role in the community they adopted 35 years ago as the business he heads today.

“This is a continuation of what Dean Hornbacher always demonstrated,” Matt notes, pointing to the company president whom he succeeded in 2010. “He always said, ‘If you’re a member of a community, you need to support it.’”

The Leiseths, who met as college students at Concordia, took that message to heart. Both have worked with a variety of groups that depend on private support. For Matt, that includes serving on the boards of the United Way of Cass Clay, the Village Family Service Center and its foundation, Downtown Moorhead Inc. and the F-M Area Foundation. Janelle has chaired the Moorhead Legacy Education Foundation and Gooseberry Park Players. Both have long been active at Trinity Lutheran Church, Matt on the council and Janelle on the campaign to renovate and enlarge the building.

Neither grew up here, but their roots are deep. Matt’s parents, David and Mary Leiseth, grew up in Moorhead and attended Moorhead State College in education. “My mother’s family line goes back 100 years.” Her great-grandfather, Nicholas Remley, was the city’s fire chief from 1908 to 1952, when her grandfather Francis succeeded him, holding that post until 1975. The Remley Annex at the main fire station was named in their honor.

He adds a side note: “Mom herself worked at Hornbacher’s back when she was in school.”

After graduating from MSC, the two teachers’ path took them to Red Wing, Minnesota, where Matt grew up. He found his way back to the city he’d heard so much about in 1980 when he enrolled at Concordia College to study business. And then, you might say, his future was determined by … a car.

“I needed to make payments on my ‘84 Ford Bronco II, so I had to find a job,” he remembers. That led him to Hornbacher’s, where he landed a spot as a part-time bagger. Too, that’s where he spotted a fellow Cobber at the check-out line.

“I was working as a cashier, and he seemed to turn up bagging at my station more often than you’d expect,” says Janelle, who had come to Concordia after graduating from Lisbon, North Dakota, High School. “As I was passing produce down the line, his hand would touch mine every once in awhile. Did he want me to move faster, or was he flirting?”

Matt interjects, “I was trying my best.”

Janelle eventually left her part-time position, ending up in campus security for a time. But the relationship – along with Matt’s career prospects – flourished. Today they have four children: daughters Katherine and Hannah, now attending Iowa State University and St. Olaf College, and Rachel, an 8th grader at Horizon Middle School. Son Isaac is a sophomore at Moorhead High School.

Matt says he never exactly planned to go into the grocery business. “It wasn’t until around my senior-ish year that I thought, ‘OK, what’s next?’ Just about every graduate in the F-M area goes to the Twin Cities next, but I recognized the opportunities here. Hornbacher’s provided jobs, and I needed one,” he explains. “I appreciate the middle size of our community.” Store manager Steve Evert hired him as the Moorhead locations front-end manager.

As for Janelle, she says, “He proposed. That’s what kept me here.”

Matt went on to handle special projects, both in Moorhead and in the Fargo Hornbacher’s stores. He was setting up computerized check stands as the IT specialist when Y2K came around. He remembers staying up until midnight with other employees waiting to see what the arrival of 2000 would bring. “And then nothing happened,” he laughs.

His wife adds, “And that’s the last time he’s stayed up that late.”

As he mastered the business from all perspectives, Matt went on to manage the Northport Hornbacher’s for six years. He says that, like Moorhead, that store – the second oldest of what’s now a chain of six – has a distinct culture. “Our Moorhead customer base is all about Moorhead pride,” he observes. “Northport is more about the neighborhood. You see second- and third-generation shoppers there.” The two south Fargo stores serve much larger areas without those distinct flavors.

Giving back to the community that supports them remains a mainstay of Hornbacher’s and Matt’s approach to business. As the dominant food supplier in the area, he takes that responsibility seriously, partnering with a wide variety of charities and causes to bring their message to the public and help them make their appeals.

Hornbacher’s and its customers have made a dramatic impact with several regular events. Big Brothers/Big Sisters’ annual Bowl for Kids campaign has collected nearly $850,000 for the mentorship program sponsored by The Village Family Services. Cherries for Charity supports volunteers’ efforts on behalf of the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center and YWCA. Many other occasions invite grocery shoppers to connect with their community, from sipping root beer floats for the United Way and eating spuds at RDO Caters Taters to hosting bell ringers every December for the Salvation Army.

The greatest impact of these programs inviting shoppers to add a buck or two to their totals benefits the Great Plains Food Bank. Over some 30 years, those eminently affordable donations have added up big time . Last December’s “Check Out Hunger” campaign netted $86,000 for the Great Plains Food Bank; the second annual drive, dubbed “Feed Hope,” is coming up in July. Since the program began, nearly $2 million has been raised for the food bank. “It speaks volumes for the generosity of this community,” Matt observes.

Matt is equally proud of his employees – some 600 of them in the three Fargo stores, two in Moorhead and the newest in West Fargo. “We are among the top 10 community givers for the United Way. That’s solely due to our people,” he says. “From high school and college kids to 30-year veterans, every single year they step up.”

That’s critical, he adds, “because the United Way campaign is the gateway to giving. It’s the first impression they see of what a nonprofit can do for your community. I’m so proud of them. It’s a cultural  touchstone we inherited from the Hornbachers.”

The local supermarkets have encountered a major change during Matt’s 13-year tenure at its helm. In 2018 ownership passed from Supervalu to Coborn’s Inc., a 101-year-old employee-owned chain headquartered in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Along with his role as president of the six local Hornbacher’s stores, which generated $110 million in revenue last year, Matt serves as the corporation’s senior vice president of operations.

“It was like going from Wall Street to Main Street,” he says of the change. SuperValu, a multi-billion-dollar Fortune 500 firm, operated some 2,500 food and food/drug stores, 900  in-store pharmacies and almost 200 fuel centers, and served as a distributor to 2,200 other clients. Coborn’s, which started in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota, very much like Ted Hornbacher’s first grocery, owns just 66, including Cash Wise, Holiday Station Stores and several others.

“Coborn’s is still a family business with very much the philosophy we inherited from Ted and Dean [Hornbacher],” Matt emphasizes. “We no longer have to always think ‘bottom line’ first. Instead, we can start by considering what’s the right thing to do. We’re able to pick and choose among worthy causes in our communities. It’s just better now.”

He adds, “Hornbacher’s decisions are made right here by people who live right here for the people who live here. We’re open to their questions and concerns. That makes us much more relevant.”

He knows all about shopping at Hornbacher’s from firsthand experience. Since shortly after the birth of their first child, Matt has handled all the families grocery duties by choice – a decision Janelle applauds.“After we brought our newborn Catherine home, I needed a card for someone. So what are you going to do – be alone for the first time with the brand-new child who terrified you, or go shopping?” she explains. “So of course I went shopping. I have to read every card, so it took a couple hours. When I came home, there Matt was, holding this crying baby with a kind of dead look in his eyes. Ever since then, he has bought all the groceries himself.”

She adds with a grin, “I used to tell people that Matt brings home the bacon … and Catherine would chime in, ‘and the eggs.’”

Janelle, who earned her degree in biology and environmental studies at Concordia, now devotes much of her time to the Moorhead Legacy Education Foundation, which she joined in 2018. As its immediate past chair, she helps coordinate the nonprofit group’s work, carrying out the late Supt. Lynne Kovash’s vision of helping to feed hungry kids and inspiring teachers to innovate in their classrooms.

The foundation – formed by a merger of the Moorhead Area Education Foundation and the original Legacy nonprofit – has provided more than $2 million in scholarships to the Moorhead High graduates they call “Spud Scholars.” It also funds Food for Thought, a program to provide snacks and milk to hungry children who qualify for food assistance, as well as Spud Impact Grants. The grants are awarded to teachers to support innovative projects in their classrooms.

She is the past president of the Gooseberry Park Players, the summer theatre company in which her children have taken part, and has served as coordinator of Trinity Lutheran’s ongoing capital campaign since its inception in 2019.

The Leiseths confessting to love their adopted home town, and they are fascinated by its story. That passion connected them with a personal project at the school Matt’s parents and, now, their own children have attended.

“Our three oldest kids are all Mr. Cole’s disciples,” Janelle says, referring to orchestra director Brian Cole. “He had an idea and reached out to us.” What would the couple think, he asked, of helping fund a permanent account of Moorhead High School’s legacy?

The answer: A big ‘yes.’ Along with the Hornbacher’s enterprise, the couple themselves funded development of the enormous mural that graces the commons at Moorhead High. Panels depict the school’s high points, from its first 40 years back in the 1800s to every decade since.

The most recent decade, the 2010s, is now taking shape. It celebrates their community. But it’s personal, too. “My grandfather and great-aunt are somewhere on the 1920s panel,” he reports. “I know they’re there, but I still have yet to spot them … even with a magnifying glass.”

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