Matthew Remke has Succeeded in tough situations before.

As a teen, traumatic kidney disease threatened his life.

At 19, his mother donated a kidney to him.

Then, he went off to college out-of-state when doctors advised him to stay home and recover.

And, he told his father he was absolutely not interested in working in the grocery business. Bill Remke, the third generation to run the family business, would have to look elsewhere for someone to lead Northern Kentucky’s homegrown Remke Markets.

Remke graduated college, worked in IT, did the New Jersey-New York City commute and made his way in big-city, big-corporate life. After a few years, he returned home to Northern Kentucky with surprising news — he was ready to work in the family business.

At 35, he’s president of Remke Markets, which last year purchased seven Ohio bigg’s stores and charged into a new era of growth.

NKY Magazine tracked him down, catching him between stores and raising his young family, and asked him to share his story.

What was it like growing up? Was it all grocery, all the time?

I grew up and worked in the stores off and on when I was in grade school, picking up old bottles and whatnot, but the grocery business never consumed my life growing up. In fact, after I graduated from college ... I went into the IT business and moved up to Hoboken, N.J.

But as I spent some time working in some larger companies after college, I realized I really enjoyed a lot of aspects of the business that my Dad was involved in.

There was a wide range of reasons there — from the people aspect of it, the challenge, the competitiveness of it, to buying and taking advantage of deals and all these kinds of things — there were just a lot facets about the grocery industry that got me excited about coming back and working for a smaller, family-oriented company.

Was there a turning point?

There wasn’t some kind of magic moment. I spent about three years up in that New York area, commuting back and forth from New York to New Jersey. It really just didn’t feel like I had a home, that I belonged anywhere. I just really wanted to get back to the Cincinnati area.

Tell me a little bit about the personal side of growing up. You were an athlete, right?

I grew up in Kentucky, and I’m still a Kentucky boy at heart.

But my Dad really forced me to go to St. Xavier High School. I don’t think that’s a secret, he made me go against my wishes and I don’t regret my father’s decision one day of my life. It was a great school and I just had all kinds of opportunities when I graduated. I was in swimming – I swam through high school and really enjoyed it.

My senior year of high school I started not feeling the way I always used to feel. I had high blood pressure, and I spent about a month where people were telling me I had different things wrong with me. I was first diagnosed with a brain tumor, and after some additional tests they eventually figured out I had kidney disease.

Before I needed the kidney transplant I would definitely have to go on dialysis. And for an 18-year-old kid that has never been through any kind of medical issues, I was really scared about how I would move forward and what I would do with my life.

So it was a scary time for me, and doctors were telling me that I may have to postpone college for a year. I got accepted into the University of Notre Dame, and I told the doctors that I was going to go to college. That’s what I wanted to do. So the doctors and my parents made all the arrangements they needed to up in South Bend… The summer of my freshman year at college my mother gave me her kidney in May of 1995, and I’ve been a successful kidney transplant story for about 16 years now.

It’s always in the back of my head…It’s a part of my life, just as I think diabetes or heart conditions are a part of people’s lives. But you live with it, you move on, and you’re just more conscious of being human and you’re not invincible.

There are little decisions I’m not sure everyone thinks through — I work for a family-owned company, and I’m president of a family-owned company that has 14 stores, and I always think that if something goes wrong with my health, I need to have a good person in place to make sure things will move on until I can get another transplant or something. When my wife and I decided to have children, I worried in the back of my head if my kids would inherit what I inherited. Would I be around to see them graduate high school and college? All that stuff, you just think a little bit more about it. Even though I do have challenging days and challenging times as everybody does, I feel every day after age 18 has been a gift for me, a second chance, and I don’t know if I use it to my fullest, but I try to.

Does it make you more determined?

Sometimes you can feel that everything is against you. Just like when the doctors told me maybe I shouldn’t go to college, you can take that to heart, or maybe have a different attitude and say, “You know, what, I’m going to prove you wrong. Not only am I going to be normal, I’m going to excel.”

You went to Notre Dame?

I thought about attending other schools, swimming in college, going to a military academy, but Notre Dame just kind of pulled me in that direction. When I got my acceptance letter, my Mom — who is my biggest supporter, by the way — I just knew she wanted me to go there. I loved the school, she loved the school, and I’m glad I went there.

When I graduated I thought I would get into some kind of finance industry — stocks, bonds, live in New York. I just did not enjoy the East Coast as much as I thought I would enjoy it.

I met my wife Andrea my senior year of college, with four months left to go. She was from South Bend, a friend of a friend…we ended up dating and having a long-distance relationship for a few years. We just kept moving back closer and closer to each other, and eventually, we got back here.

I have to imagine that your father was thrilled when you decided to come back.

He was thrilled — and a little shocked…a few years after college I came back to him and I told him I’d like to come back and I asked if he had something for me.

So you came back.

I initially worked as a store manager at a Save-A-Lot store, (Remke owned nine Save-A-Lot stores at the time) then became director of operations for the stores, so I was in charge of nine of them.

I moved into IT — director of information technology, and then I moved into a buyer position at our company.

My current title is president/vice president of merchandising.

I’ve done it all from the perspective of the grocery industry. My dad was always passionate that whoever has leadership positions in our company needs to work his way through our stores.

Do you ever feel pressure to prove that you’re not just your father’s son?

That’s a good question. (He laughs.)

And it is something that comes into the back of my head every once in a while. I don’t ask anything of the people who report to me that I have not done or would not do myself. Period. End of story. I think the people I work with know that.

As you go through life, you meet people throughout your career that just seem to be driven or successful in their own way. They always find positives in their life, no matter what is going on. I try to surround myself with those people, whether it’s friends, family, and I look to my co-workers to get me through those challenging times when you may doubt yourself. But you get good people around you and you move through it.

What challenges are ahead for Remke markets?

Cincinnati is an extremely competitive grocery market. You’ve got the Number 1 conventional store chain here in Cincinnati in Kroger. You’ve got the largest big box store, Wal-mart, who entered with SuperCenters maybe five, six years ago now. And those two companies are really battling it out in our area for market share...Remke’s has always been a little different in the area. We started in Northern Kentucky but we’ve always been different in that we’re okay with that conventional grocery store format. We’re okay being the smaller guy. We want to offer a variety of products at competitive prices. And have good customer service. We think that we can win those customers over by treating them like family when they come into our stores...

Last year we had the opportunity to merge or buy seven bigg’s locations in Ohio, which gave us a better presence in Ohio than maybe putting one or two stores in the area. There were a lot of similarities between bigg’s and Remke’s, a lot of similar traits and a lot of that same customer-service focus. So we accepted that challenge. We purchased bigg’s in May of last year, so it’s been one year and it’s been a difficult challenge, but we’re starting to see light at the end of that tunnel...

Was that a hard decision to make?

Absolutely. Both financially and I guess personally. You know, you think, is this the direction you want the company to take? We started off as one store back in 1897, and even all the way up through 1980 we had two stores, Fort Mitchell and Covington. These past few years, for a small company like us, we’ve seen a lot of growth.

We’d like to keep growing store count, keep giving our associates new opportunities, but we need to do it in a fiscally responsible way and make sure we’re staying true to who we are. We’re not going to be a Wal-mart — we can’t be a Wal-mart. They have their own niche. And Kroger has their own niche. We think we can be a strong, local, independent-run grocery store chain that can provide good service with very high-quality perishables, and by those I obviously mean meat, produce, deli and bakery. I think we can offer high-quality perishables with competitive pricing and satisfy a lot of the needs of the people looking for groceries.

Can you imagine passing it down to your children?

It’s a dream of any family business to keep that tradition going. I feel like I have a passion for this business and I feel like I inherited that from my dad, and I hope my kids have that same passion — whether it’s for Remke’s or something else, as long as they’re happy, that’s all that matters to me. 

All in the Family