After six decades in the grocery business, including more than 30 years locally, Upper Arlington's proprietor of produce and more is stepping away from Huffman's Market.

On July 30, owner Tim Huffman quietly completed the sale of the business he's run at 2140 Tremont Center since 1987 to Chicago businessman Raj Patel.

In some ways, the transaction was in keeping with the countless out-of-the-spotlight sponsorships and donations of money and groceries Huffman and his family have granted to children, schools, youth teams, organizations and local community projects over the past 31 years.

And Huffman's departure from a lifetime in the grocery business -- one that started by sorting soda bottles and sweeping floors at a carryout when he was 10 years old -- certainly seems a hushed ride into the sunset compared to the colorful costumes he and his wife, Glenda, don for customers and school children each Halloween, their annual sleigh rides through neighborhood streets as Santa and Mrs. Claus at Christmastime or the boisterous greetings and ribbings the 70-year-old offers to his loyal patrons.

"We shall see," Huffman said of his retirement. "We have lots of projects for the house to work on, we're going to do lots of traveling and I have three kids and six grandkids, and I'd like to visit them a little bit."

As the staff stocked the store Aug. 10, including 87-year-old longtime Huffman's employee Earl Stover, who announced his own plans to retire shortly after Huffman -- lunchtime shoppers filtered in and out.

Among them was former Huffman's employee Patrick Hurley, who these days is assistant principal at Tremont Elementary School in Upper Arlington.

Hurley fondly recounted his time working at Huffman's, his first job. His only negative experience, he said, was being made to work one Fourth of July while Huffman handed out free hotdogs at the community parade.

"I had a great experience working here," Hurley said. "For this community and -- specifically, for my family -- this man has been amazing. It's hard to see him let go of the reins here, but I know it's the right choice for him.

Retired Tremont Elementary teacher Kathy Trainer also was among the shoppers who reminisced about Huffman providing financial support, food and drinks to the school. She also recalled the time he sent longtime employee James Williams to the school to teach students about produce.

Just before Huffman allowed Trainer's 2-year-old grandson, James, to flip the switch powering the trademark model train that circles a track at the front of Huffman's Market, Tom Trainer, Kathy's husband, said Huffman has provided quality foods and beverages to the community, with unique customer service.

"He's kind of like family," Tom Trainer said.

Greeting customers, getting to know them, their interests and their needs as shoppers helped Huffman keep up with growing competition over the years from big-box stores as well as emerging trends in the retail like online shopping and niche stores such as Whole Foods Market, Lucky's Market and Trader Joe's.

In April 2004, Huffman's Market became the first store in Ohio to have carryout liquor sales on Sundays, Tim Huffman said.

Huffman said the state ban on Sunday liquor sales created confusion and inconvenience for customers. Roughly 85 percent of Tremont Center-area voters -- 241 of 284 -- supported his Sunday sales liquor option, he said.

Business strategy

When asked to describe his small-business strategy, Huffman was clear: "Customer service, being involved in the community, getting customers what they want as quick as you can get it and trying to have things the competition does not carry."

He said his employees, many of whom have worked at the store for decades and know customers by name, helped him succeed.

"We have a great staff," he said. "The last several years, I've been behind the scenes all the time. They're the ones the customers see. They're the ones that get the job done."

Community engagement

Community engagement has been a key part of Huffman's business practices, often done quietly and behind the scenes.

Alice Finley, executive director of the education foundation, said Huffman "has supported the foundation in many ways as long as I can remember."

"In 2013, Tim and Glenda started an endowment fund with the UA+Ed Foundation," Finley said. "The purpose of the fund is to provide financial support to Upper Arlington High School students for both curricular and noncurricular needs and opportunities. This fund has quietly helped students with needs that most of us take for granted.

"For example, students can receive financial support to purchase books, homecoming and prom tickets, and lunches with friends. As opposed to some of our other funds, people will likely never know how this fund is making a difference in students' lives."

In addition to employing countless local students, the Huffmans have provided financial support to many youths and organizations over the years. They regularly provide free food and drinks at community events and have donated food and money to numerous organizations and community projects over the past 31 years.

Pete Walsh, an Upper Arlington Community Association past president, often says the UACA ranks as the third-best brand in Upper Arlington -- behind UA schools and Tim Huffman.

"I haven't been part of a group that needed to raise money in UA where I didn't begin the conversation by saying, 'After we call Tim Huffman, what should we do?' " Walsh said. "It was my way of moving a group's fundraising conversation beyond the one thought each person in the group was about to share.

"It has been my experience that Tim Huffman gave to anyone who asked, though Tim was wise enough not to lend his name to politicians."

Huffman said he and Glenda, parents of Ryan, Tony and Melissa, moved from Westerville to Upper Arlington to become more involved in the community where they worked. He added that taking an active role in the community, both through philanthropy and membership in local groups like the former Upper Arlington Chamber of Commerce and the Upper Arlington Rotary Club forged deeper bonds with customers and neighbors.

"We moved over here about 16 years ago to be part of the community," Huffman said. "I absolutely love it.

"When I grew up, we had very humble beginnings, and now I'm able to do things. When I can, I do."

Huffman marvels at the list of employees he's managed over the years and the lives they've gone on to live.

He said he is looking forward to retirement, despite worrying that it might be an adjustment for Glenda to have him around the house so much.

And he wants all his customers and the Upper Arlington community to understand his appreciation of their friendships and support over the years. He said it boosted his spirits over the years, and helped make Huffman's Market a long-running success.

"I think we've done a great business here in the community and I'd like it to continue," Huffman said. "I just want to thank the community for the support they've given to me and to my family.

"I've been involved as much as I can be in the community. I love it. I love what they've done for me. I just want to thank you for all the years."

nellis@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNate