C&K Market, the parent company of Ray's Food Place grocery stores, will shift a significant amount of its front-office operations to Medford beginning the first week of December.

C&K Market, the parent company of Ray's Food Place grocery stores, will shift a significant amount of its front-office operations to Medford beginning the first week of December.

The Brookings-based company will move real estate, construction, training and some of its human resources activity to the former Ticor Title building at 850 O'Hare Parkway in Navigators Landing near the Medford airport.

"We are kind of bulging at the seams here in Brookings," said Greg Sandeno, who has been the grocery chain's chief executive officer since May 1. "We're getting to the size of company where it is kind of difficult to keep everybody at the size of facility we have in Brookings."

C&K Market operates 65 grocery stores and 13 pharmacies between Willamina in Northern Oregon and Cloverdale, Calif., including seven Ray's Food Place locations in Jackson County, and has nearly 1,500 employees. About 90 executive and staff members work in C&K Market's Brookings headquarters. However, several corporate-level employees living in Medford and Grants Pass make weekly trips to the coast.

"Right out of the gate there will be around 25 people in the regional office," Sandeno said. "It will shrink this office some, but because some of the folks have been operating out of their homes, we'll still have 80 here. It won't relieve (the crowding) a ton, but we'll get more breathing space."

As C&K looks to the future and potential growth, close proximity to the airport with one-stop connections to just about any major airport is a critical factor. It also makes sense, given the cost of bringing employees to Brookings.

"Many of them live in the valley," Sandeno said. "They drive here Monday, and we put them up in a hotel all week and they go home on Friday. The hotel business was getting pretty healthy over here. When it comes to accessibility and travel, this puts us much more in the center of things."

The Rogue Valley location also will be more convenient for national sales representatives who work with C&K's buyers, he said.

"Let's say we're dealing with Frito-Lay and maybe we get a Northwest regional rep to come work with my buyers here once a month," Sandeno said. "In Medford, we can get corporate-level folks out of Dallas and it's very easy for them to meet with us. As a company, we can tap into better buying access with more national players versus regional."

Contacts that before were limited to video conferencing can be upgraded to face-to-face gatherings.

"We get quarterly requests from people who want their top executives to meet with myself and our team face-to-face, and that hasn't happened due to the shortness of time," Sandeno said. "Now, I can get in our plane, fly 20 minutes and we can have a meeting."

Just as important to the company as it sizes up future growth is that Medford is at the crossroads for a company that remains in a growth mode. There are plenty of communities of 3,000 to 4,000 whose demographics match C&K Market's mold.

C&K purchased Tark's Market in Talent in September, expanding its cache of Ray's Food Place properties in the Rogue Valley.

"If you look at our grid — north, south, east and west — there are still opportunities to acquire stores within that grid," Sandeno said. "The Medford office is fairly central and our real estate and construction people can be dispatched much quicker to look at sites and things of that nature."

While Jackson County has lost front-office jobs at Erickson Air-Crane and Musician's Friend in recent years, C&K's expansion is an opportunity for long-term growth in a different sector.

"This is one of those deals driven by population and numbers," said Bill Thorndike Jr., chairman of the Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. board. "It certainly helps to be on I-5 and being a community that has a pretty good size presence in distribution. It's a shift of good jobs that are already in Southern Oregon, but we look forward to C&K Market being positioned to growing their business here. When you think of hiring people in backroom operations, there is probably a wider range of opportunities to hire those kind of people here."

In the past 12 months, C&K Market has bought stores in Drain and Philomath, in addition to Talent, while its Willits, Calif., store is undergoing a major remodel.

"We're always seeking places to fit our model," said Sandeno, who spent 20 years working for Kroger Co.'s Fred Meyer unit before joining C&K Market as chief operating officer in 2005. "We're looking at neighboring states such as Washington and farther east in California than we are today. We're open to going outside the box."

Doug Nidiffer, whose family has controlled the 56-year-old company since 1969, remains chairman of the board and his son Alan is executive vice president and chief information officer.

There are roughly half as many independent chains such as C&K in the nation as there were 25 years ago, leaving close to 100. Competition from major supermarket chains such as Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger as well as big box retailers Walmart and Target, who have moved into the grocery business, creates an increasingly difficult environment.

"The challenge for independent operators is to keep customers in town, offering the right products, level of service and fair prices to differentiate us so they won't drive off to Costco and Walmart on weekends," Sandeno said. "The vision is the same with sustainable growth and to offer stable shopping solutions to small communities."