Thursday, July 20, 2017  

Small Town Grocery Stores: Where Everybody Knows Your Name


Before you could buy tires while picking up a dozen eggs, there was your local grocery store. Still a huge part of our communities today, walking through their doors makes you realize that it is so much easier to buy groceries when all you have to do is drive your cart through aisles and aisles of what you came to buy; food.
In 1948, Callao Market was started by father and son team, Robert and Paul Burgess. Robert came home from World War II and found work as a bread man out of Warsaw, VA. Paul, Robert’s father, was a meat cutter. When Callao Market went up for sale they bought the store together. Bob Burgess, son of Robert, grew up watching his family work the store and in his teen years began to work at Callao Market.
Bob has been taking care of the needs of his customers for decades. He believes that the continued success of Callao has been a continued involvement in the community around them and being a big supporter of other local businesses. He hires small local contractors when needed and invests in the community around them by shopping local as well as supporting local churches, schools and people.
Keeping prices competitive is just one small part of what Callao Market offers. Burgess says, “What we try to focus on at Callao Market is what larger chain stores cannot compete with us on, and that is one on one service.”
Callao Market keeps it personal by knowing their customers. They keep butchers that are knowledgeable in what they offer and are able to cut meat on site at the demands of their customers. Steaks can be cut to preference and style. “Finding a piece of meat that fits the need of an individual customer is easier when you know your customers so well you can anticipate their requests,” says Burgess.
Callao Market goes beyond the sliding doors and takes groceries to those who cannot make it into the store because of age or physical ailments. “Sometimes the elderly can’t make it into the store, so we make sure they get what they need and bring it right to their door,” says Burgess. They also provide for the local fleets docked in Reedville.
Continuing the family tradition, Bob’s son Chris came on board over 20 years ago and is now the General Manager. Chris runs the day to day operations of Callao Market while Bob maintains the Senior Management position, keeping the store running and overseeing total operations. Today Callao Market employs an average of 35 men and women at any given time.
“What I do comes naturally to me. My customers are my friends,” says Bob. “When a person is willing to spend decades giving back to their community, it is more than a job for them,” Bob says and adds, “When you enjoy what you are doing, it is not work.”
Another local grocery store located in Kilmarnock, VA, was started in July of 1975. Stewart Dunaway, Lee Davis, and Mitchell T. Carlson pulled all of their prior grocery store management experience together and began Tri-Star Grocery Store with instant success. The location was originally on School Road, but eventually outgrew the building. In 1987, they moved into the current location on Irvington Road, taking over the former Safeway store.
Dunaway and Davis continue to manage various aspects of the business, but they rely heavily on their store manager, Francine Jones. Jones started working at Tri-Star in the dairy section, but over time she moved up the ladder and now oversees everything. Both Dunaway and Davis admit that without Jones, they would be lost, and although Carlson has passed on, his grandson still manages the meat department.
Tri-Star prides themselves on customer service and their anticipation of customer needs. Jones says, “We are able to get a lot of specialty foods that customers cannot find anywhere else. It’s almost like an exciting game for me when I can find something that a customer has been looking for. I get almost as excited as they do!”
In Kilmarnock, the locals come from very different backgrounds and have come to the area from all over the country and some from across the globe. At Tri-Star, they strive to accommodate all backgrounds and personal needs. Davis says, “Ninety-nine percent of the time we can get everything our customers are looking for.”
“What people don’t realize is that even though we are a small community we serve a wide variety of customers. We are one of the wealthiest counties in Virginia and have mansions on the river, but we also have customers watching every penny. We are here to serve them all,” says Dunaway.
From parties to special orders, Jones is willing to go the extra mile to provide great customer service. If a customer is having a large party and needs help getting shopping done, they can give the list to Tri-Star, and Tri-Star will get the list prepared and have it waiting at the checkout for the customer. They also have standing orders for specific beers and wines that are purchased weekly upon request. Being a customer centered store, they know the customers by name and are ready to load cars when needed.
 “Every employee is trained on the register. No one likes to wait to be checked out, and nothing is more irritating for customers than seeing only one person working a register with several other potential lanes closed,” says Jones.
People come from miles around and line up twice a day, every single day, for the fried chicken at the Tri-Star Deli. The team of women that work behind the deli counter are professionals at keeping the deli line moving and have little time for conversation as customers line up for this local favorite.
Unlike larger chains, Tri-Star does not used frozen, pre-breaded chicken that just gets tossed into the fryer. They start with fresh cut up chicken and soak it before covering it with their own locally famous trade secret breading recipe. They are consistently busy with orders for their fried chicken that is often the focus of many dinners, festivals and events!
A short drive from Tappahannock will lead you to Watts & Sons Supermarket in Miller’s Tavern. It has referred to as “the biggest little grocery store that you have ever been in.” Started as a small service store in 1948, Alfred Watts would stand behind the counter as customers would ask for items like baking soda, flour, sugar and more. Watts would retrieve the items from the stock area and tally the items and totals by hand with pencil and paper.
The first store located on Millers Tavern Road burned to the ground in 1956 so Watts moved to the second location alongside 360 when it was a small, local road. There would be two different times when highway improvements would force Watts to move his store, and on the fourth move in 1969 the current building for Watts & Sons Supermarket would be constructed.  From the beginning, Watts carried everything from groceries to hardware. He sold work shoes and clothing, making himself an integral part of the community.
When the store was relocated to its current building, Watts & Sons continued to carry items like clothing, rakes, and other household items alongside groceries. Alfred Watts passed away in 1972, just as Watts & Sons Supermarket was making the transition to focusing on only groceries.
The store had always been a family effort. Alfred’s wife worked alongside him, but focused her efforts on their three children, Alfred Jr., Bill and Diane, who also worked alongside their father as they grew. Alfred Jr., Bill and Diane grew up in the supermarket. Diane became less involved as she grew her own family.  Alfred Jr. worked until he passed away in 1977, and Bill has been carrying the tradition of the store ever since. Their mother worked until she retired in 2002, and is turning 90 in December 2015.
Bill Watts now manages Watts & Sons Supermarket with approximately 15 employees. He says, “I have watched the community grow and change around me just as they have watched me grow and change.” He says, “Our customers are like family to me.”
Watts is loyal to his local community, making Watts & Sons Supermarket a local landmark. “We are a full service grocery store. We buy local produce when it is in season, and we also buy locally for our oysters and crabmeat. Our customers look forward to what we can bring to them throughout the year.”
“What we do now is what we have always done. The items that we carry may have changed over the years but the service that we provide has never changed. It is important that we make people feel welcomed when they walk through the front door. We try to cater to their every need,” says Watts. They have an onsite butcher that will cut to order customer requests, provide catering needs for special events, and donate to local community needs.
Watts most memorable moment was in 1969 when the community came together to help the Watts family move their business into their new location. Bill remembers that his father offered to pay those who helped but they all refused. Watts says, “When you love your community, they will love you back.”
The common thread that runs through all of these local markets is a love for what they do and a deep appreciation for the communities around them. They know their customers well, and many customers are on a first name basis with the managers, owners and employees. Each has a beautiful small town feel with a large heart that beats for their respective communities. They all purchase from large buyers, so pricing is just as competitive as the larger chain stores. However, some things cannot be bought and sold in bulk, and a local store that brings a smile to your face when you walk through their doors is something that is more than convenient; it’s home.