Grocery Legacy: Richard Draeger

Words by Kate Daly

Photos by Annie Barnett

Words by Kate Daly

Woodside resident Richard Draeger has a big anniversary coming up. Next year, the family business turns 100. Draeger’s Market, the specialty grocer that offers hard-to-find imported products, full-service butcher counters, an expansive selection of prepared foods and top-notch baked goods, had humble origins. It traces its roots back to a small deli in San Francisco.

Richard, the chief operations officer and co-owner, never knew the founder, his grandfather Gustave Draeger. Gustave died before Richard was born, but he still delights in telling the story of how a young merchant marine from Prussia jumped ship in Texas. Gustave spent time in Chicago driving a taxi and working in restaurants before finding his way to San Francisco during its boomtown years after the devastating 1906 earthquake. By 1925, Gustave had saved up enough money to open Draeger’s Delicatessen in the Richmond District.

Gustave copied the self-service practices he’d seen in Midwestern stores and introduced the first shopping carts to San Francisco. At the time, customers would request the items and the shopkeeper would fetch them off the shelves. Thanks to this labor-saving innovation, Gustave greatly reduced the cost of his operations, Richard recounts.

Gustave was at the forefront of another big change, Richard recalls. After years of Prohibition, in 1933 his grandfather anticipated the legalization of alcoholic beverage sales and was the first to secure a liquor license from the city of San Francisco.

After opening five liquor stores, Gustave built the largest market in the city in 1945, and his sons, Frank and Gustave Jr., joined the business. In 1955, Frank bought out his older brother and built the Menlo Park store. In the
years that followed, the business grew to include stores in San Mateo, Los Altos and across the Bay in Danville.

Richard and his nine brothers and sisters all grew up in the family enterprise. “From the age of 12, we worked on stocking shelves, carrying groceries to cars, checking out groceries, cooking—we literally did all of the aspects of the business throughout our high school and college years,” Richard says.

Every Sunday night was family night. His parents, both amazing cooks, would spend hours preparing and serving a meal for about 20 people, including grandparents, aunts and uncles. As for the kids, “we’d be the labor crew,” Richard recalls. “We did all the dishes, chopped all the produce.”

Frank always made sure to bring great French wines to the table, both for drinking and for use in sauces. “He wanted us to understand why it is so important to have a great wine with whatever we were eating,” Richard relays. Frank lived by the mantra, “It’s very easy to cook great food—use great ingredients.”

Considering the size of those weekly dinner parties, he may have been his own best customer. “He worked until the day he died, when he was 86 years old. He loved being in the business,” Richard says.

Pride in this family tradition carries on today, as six of Frank’s 10 children work for the company and serve on the board. “We are more or less on the same page. We do get along pretty well, as a result of growing up in the business together.”

Richard, who oversees merchandising, forecasting, payroll and staffing, spends his days in Draeger’s administrative offices in South San Francisco, where he’s also in charge of the expansive kitchens where baked goods and deli counter offerings are prepared for all the stores. The rest of the responsibilities are divvied up among his other siblings. John heads up human resources, meat and seafood operations, Tony manages IT and pricing for produce, wine and liquor. Jim serves as president and legal counsel and Peter handles most of the office management and banking as CFO. Sister Mary Claire Draeger-DeSoto oversees communications, advertising and design.

Richard and his wife Mary Ann raised their three children in Woodside. Now adults, Richard’s kids have moved on to do other things, but three of their first cousins have become the fourth generation of Draegers to carry on the family business. John’s son Frank is training in accounting and being groomed to become CFO, while his daughter Kacie works in payroll. Tony’s daughter, Tori, is the marketing director.

Richard feels optimism for the company’s future, in part given its good fortune to be anchored here on the Peninsula. Buying smaller lots with hard-to-find wines, artisanal cheeses and other specialty items has long set the market apart from larger chain stores. Comparing Silicon Valley to Paris, London and New York, Richard says, “The customers here are the highest educated people on the planet, they travel to the best places on the planet and they are making product recommendations to us … Our clientele does a lot of the sourcing for us.”

And don’t discount the appeal of the tantalizing spread of prepared foods in the expansive cases at the deli counter, where you can take home everything from chicken cordon bleu to potato pancakes, savory sesame noodles to plank-roasted salmon. Draeger’s German potato salad is based on Richard’s great-grandmother’s recipe, and is one of many convenient “meal solutions” to entice busy shoppers short on time.

A trend that surprises Richard is the rise in Instacart shopping. It has tripled at Draeger’s since before the onset of COVID. He predicts that AI will increasingly become a strong planning tool for keeping track of inventory, delivering instant information on what’s popular and what’s not. He sees potential savings in harnessing that data.

In the challenging grocery store sector, change is a given. Draeger’s no longer runs a cooking school, and in 2020 after a 23-year run, closed its upscale Viognier restaurant located on the second floor of the downtown San Mateo market. The markets’ bistros, floral departments and extensive houseware sections, however, are still going strong. Richard clearly enjoys upholding the values his parents instilled, partnering with his siblings to carry on a family legacy for generations to come.

Stock Up –