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Kristi Magnuson Nelson is president and CEO of Hugo’s Family Marketplace and Hugo’s Wine & Spirits, a company that employs about 1,400 people in its 10 supermarkets, three pharmacies, seven Caribou Coffee Shops and five liquor stores across North Dakota and Minnesota. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Hugo's continues to be a family affair

Chances are if your first job was in Grand Forks, you might have delivered the Herald newspaper or bagged groceries at a neighborhood Hugo's store.

Kristi Magnuson Nelson did both.

At age 12, the young entrepreneur retired from her paper route to begin her career in carryout. Back then, there was no such thing as "paper or plastic." Your choices were paper or cardboard box, and the uniform was white shirt, bow tie and green apron.

Today, the uniform and the job are a little different for Magnuson Nelson, president and CEO of Hugo's Family Marketplace and Hugo's Wine & Spirits, a company that employs about 1,400 people in its 10 supermarkets, three pharmacies, seven Caribou Coffee Shops and five liquor stores across North Dakota and Minnesota.

"Almost half the people you ask will say they work or once worked at Hugo's," said Lisa Mangino Swanson, communications director for the company.

In fact, Magnuson Nelson estimates Hugo's has employed tens of thousands since her grandparents, Hugo and Dorothy Magnuson, first opened their small charge-and-delivery store in 1939. The Pure Food Market was at 506 DeMers Ave. and moved in the 1940s to a larger space where The Toasted Frog now is located.

In the 78 years since, the company continued to grow and also became one of the largest community supporters. Magnuson Nelson carries on the tradition with her mother, Judy, sister Diane and brother David, who all serve on the board of directors.

A family affair

"I grew up at Hugo's," Magnuson Nelson said. "And as a teenager one of my favorite extra summer jobs was helping my grandma and my great aunt sort coupons and send them to the clearinghouse for redemption."

She also recalled the days she spent playing as a young child with her sister and brother under her father's desk at the store. When he was finished for the day, she and her sister always were ready to go, "but he would have to pull my brother out from under the desk."

Her father is the late Curt Magnuson, who also grew up in the business and took the lead as company president in 1967. At that time in Grand Forks, Hugo Magnuson was also Mayor Magnuson.

Like her father and grandfather, Magnuson Nelson loved the business and the many friendships that came with it. It came naturally to her, but she wasn't always planning to follow in their footsteps.

She graduated from Red River High School and earned a degree in criminal justice from UND.

"My parents encouraged us to pursue different career options," she said. "I don't think they wanted us to feel compelled to work at the store. They wanted us to pursue our own interests, too."

Magnuson Nelson worked with at-risk youth at Tri-County Community Corrections in Crookston for a number of years. She loved the city and found the work rewarding, but she said she eventually made her way back to Grand Forks and Hugo's.

"It's just a feeling of family," she said. "My family and everyone who works in our stores are your neighbors and friends. I've met so many lifelong friends, both co-workers and customers."

Lifelong friends

Jeff Westrem, a 41-year veteran of Hugo's is one of those friends. He is the company's human resource director and formerly a longtime store director at Hugo's in East Grand Forks.

"Kristi really cares about her associates, both personally and professionally, and we have a great number who have been with the company for many years," Westrem said. "As a customer, you have the familiar faces. People enjoy working at Hugo's. They stick around for a long time, and that's a credit to Kristi and her family.

Mangino Swanson added that Magnuson Nelson knows how to develop strong leaders, too. She hires good people and trusts them to do their jobs.

"She doesn't micromanage. She's very down to earth and approachable, too. Not every business owner is like that," she said.

Magnuson Nelson says Hugo's has strived to stay ahead of new trends in technology, customer tastes and specialty services such as curbside pickup, home delivery and cooking classes.

"We're excited when we can offer something new and make the shopping experience better for our customers," she said.

A giving heart

One thing that hasn't changed through the years is the Magnuson family's impact on communities throughout the region. Fellow business and community leaders describe Magnuson Nelson as quiet, humble and generous.

"She is really a true example of selflessness and compassion. I just think the world of her and her family. They are amazing people," said Kristi Hall-Jiran, president and CEO of the Community Violence Intervention Center. "One of the neat things about Kristi is it's such a legacy story. The Magnuson family has played such a huge part in investing in this whole community."

Likewise, local United Way President Pat Berger said it's clear the elder Magnusons passed down the "value of supporting your community."

"She's a great person. She is someone who deeply cares for the community and is a strong supporter of the community, but in a very quiet way."

Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of The Chamber of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, said "Kristi Magnuson has continued the proud Hugo's tradition of unequaled community involvement and support.

"Thanks to her leadership, Hugo's makes every community they are located in a better place for the people who live there and their employees."

And the support goes beyond financial, Westrem said. She also is active on many local boards, as well as state and national boards in the grocery industry.

When she served as the Chamber board chair in 2015, she was the third generation to do so. Her father served in 1977 and her grandfather in 1950.

"My parents and grandparents always stressed the importance of giving back to the community because the community has been so good to us," said Magnuson Nelson, who herself lives in Grand Forks with husband Bob Nelson and stepdaughter Juliana Nelson. "We live and work in the community, and we want to support it to help it stay healthy and vibrant."

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