For Durham residents and students at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Sammy’s Market and its owners, Ravi and Jan Kumar, are the equivalent to Hollywood celebrities who know and treat their customers like “family.” For outsiders or the uninitiated, however, their modest store front and unassuming interior – located on 5 Madbury Road – say otherwise, suggesting a longtime staple equivalent to Town and Campus or Young’s Restaurant, and nothing more.
That is, until one checks their Instagram.
Once reaching the handle @sammysmarket, users are bound to find the store’s bolder side, one bustling with a bizarre creativity and vigor unconventional for the average convenience store. Specifically, they’ll find short clips of Ravi – a businessman and former assistant vice president of Santander Bank, among other past jobs – reenacting pop culture with a Wildcats spin. He reenacts scenes of ABC’s “The Bachelor” with UNH students, complete with a picturesque drape backdrop, roses and Rosé. He declares a “touchdown” for Bud Light and flags fake IDs as a Super Bowl referee, yellow flag and all. He celebrates Oscar season, hosted by his wife, Jan, by dressing up as Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker” and promoting sales on disposable sticks and (once again) Bud Light. He even joins in student Tik Toks to the tune of tracks like K Camp’s “Lottery (Renegade)” and dresses in a festive red jacket complete with flashing Christmas lights and equally magical promotion for, you guessed it, Bud Light.
The end result: A growing social media presence nearing 3,000 followers that has drawn universal praise from the community for its matchless sense of humor and close connection with its customers. And it all began last spring, as another heated pop culture phenomenon was nearing its cold and bitter end.
“The first one that really caught on was the ‘Game of Thrones’ ,” Jan Kumar said on Feb. 19. “’Game of Thrones’ was coming to a finale at the time, and we knew that a lot of people were watching and whatever. So, we did this little ‘Game of Thrones’ setup and it was around the time of Cinco de Mayo… we wanted to promote that [as well].”
As they brainstormed how to tie the three together – Sammy’s Market, HBO’s blockbuster and Cinco de Mayo – Jan suggested making a slight alteration to one of the show’s trademark quotes. Instead of heralding the arrival of winter, by then a bygone season, Ravi would now famously declare “Cinco de Mayo is coming.”
Armed with a fireplace, crown, goblet, makeshift throne and the iconic theme music in the background, the resulting video saw Ravi’s welcoming smile transform into an ominous sneer and back again, all while promoting the Mexican holiday. The video also saw, as of February 2020, over 9,000 views, over 1,200 likes and 136 comments tagging other users and praising the clip’s tribute. One user even went as far as to declare that Ravi “deserves the iron throne.”
The video’s success inspired the newly dubbed “King of the North” to produce a sequel almost two weeks later on May 14, this time substituting the “Game of Thrones” with a nod to upcoming commencement ceremonies complete with one of the first of many future nods to Bud Light: “dilly-dilly!”
The videos’ sudden success for the Kumars contrasts with the gradual transformation of the store itself, which they bought in December 2018 from the previous owner in rundown condition. The next several months saw the couple renovate it extensively, complete with new counters, cabinets and floors; a revamped alcohol department; increased inventory—up to 3,000 new products according to The New Hampshire last March; and a brand new Instagram account, which they debuted that month.
“We were here for a few months, we kind of got a feel for our market and we have kids in the age group of these college kids, so we talk to them about it, too,” Jan said, “and some of the products we carry we got [from] ideas from our kids as well.”
“The key of success of any business is you treat them [the customers] like you get treated,” Ravi Kumar said. “It’s not about selling, it’s about seeing what’s beneficial to them, how I can save them money, how I can talk to my vendors to bring the costs down. I don’t want to charge them too much price, and I don’t want to sell them anything which they don’t need, and if they can get away with a $2 product, they don’t need to buy a $10 product.”
Regarding the role of their rising Instagram star power, Ravi called the account’s success “pretty good,” and accredited its success to his reputation as both a welcoming store owner and a creator.
“Whenever I have any kind of idea, I think in my head over and over, and I talk to Jan, ‘What do you think of this idea,’” he explained. “So, we share our ideas with each other.”
“We also talk about, like, what’s coming up in the news, like we did [with] a Super Bowl promotion,” Jan added, “and we did four or five little spots on the Super Bowl. We have one running right now for the ‘Bachelor’ finale. Whatever happens to be going on, we try to tap into that and then… try to do a few little spots on the same subject and put them on, like, in a week’s time.”
Regarding the students who make cameos in the shorts, Jan exclaimed that students are “clamoring” to get involved because how fun it is to work with Ravi, stressing that they “want to be part of Sammy’s Market.”
“It’s fun and it’s a family,” he said. “You need to create your family because, otherwise, there’s other stores around – four, five, six stores around – but they sell a product; we sell fun over here.”
Jan agreed, calling “fun” their “number one product.”
“Would you rather go into a store where you just walk in and get your thing and leave, or would you rather go in where somebody knows your name, actually has a moment to talk to you about what’s going on in your life,” she asked. “People are away from home here, so we are their home away from home.”
When asked about the future of Sammy’s Market, the Kumars say they plan to continue and expand their Instagram efforts, with Ravi musing a potential “Sammy’s Club” royalty membership initiative. He did not specify whether or not he plans on moving forward with the idea.
What he did confirm, however, is the store’s ongoing commitment to giving back to their community, encouraging repeat patronage, adding new members to their ever-growing “family” and bringing the old-fashioned Durham staple, a “destination” in Jan’s words, into the new decade thanks to the power of virality.
“You know, a product is a product; somewhere you can maybe [get it] 50 cents cheaper or 50 cents higher,” Ravi said. “But then, someone knows you, someone understands you, someone provides you a service, and this store… we want to make it a service-based store, not a price-based store.”
As we closed out our interview, The New Hampshire asked Ravi when his next commercial might be released on Instagram. In the name of “fun,” he declined to disclose his surprise—for now.