It is a golden moment today for Piggly Wiggly and the company that operates the stores in and around the Columbus and Phenix City area, with JTM Corp., founded 50 years ago by meat cutter Tommy Milligan, also celebrating the 100th anniversary of the innovative grocery chain.
Playing off the Willy Wonka plot line in which young Charlie finds a golden ticket inside a candy bar wrapper, Phenix City-based JTM will be offering 1,900 Piggly Wiggly shoppers — 100 from each of its 19 stores — tickets that allow them to purchase five items at prices from Piggly Wiggly’s first advertisement after opening its first store in Memphis, Tenn., on Sept. 6, 1916.
“It’s a chance to celebrate the 100th anniversary by giving as many people as you can those prices from a hundred years ago,” said Mike Milligan, who now operates JTM Corp. alongside brothers Keith and Gil, with the help of a third generation of their sons heavily involved in the business.
The golden tickets will offer the lucky 1,900 shoppers a dozen large eggs for 29 cents, 12 ounces of bacon for 23 cents, a pound of butter for 28 cents, 8 pounds of potatoes for 21 cents, and four pounds of sugar for 27 cents. Ring that up at the cash register and the grand total before tax will be $1.28.
The winners were drawn out of the hundreds and hundreds of slips filled out at the local Piggly Wiggly stores in August by people participating in its regular “Moolahpalooza” promotion. Golden ticket recipients will be notified by managers, but they also can check online. Columbus and Phenix City is JTM’s largest market, with 11 total stores. But it also has locations in LaGrange, Ga., Thomaston, Ga., Opelika, Ala., Lanett, Ala., and Eufaula, Ala.
“In every city that we operate, seven cities, each city’s mayor is proclaiming it as Piggly Wiggly Day,” said Milligan, noting the golden ticket promotion was created long before the recent passing of “Willy Wonka” movie star Gene Wilder.
It was in 1966 that Tommy Milligan, after working with several stores in town, decided to venture on his own, opening his first grocery in the Baker Village area of south Columbus. It grew from there, with the supermarket in the Ladonia area of Phenix City being his fourth store, but the first in a shopping center that he had built. Thus, the corporate headquarters was located there as well and remains today.
“He’s taking it easy,” Mike Milligan said of his father, who opened that first location at age 32. He will turn 82 in November. “But he still looks at the numbers and he’s still our dad, so he’s still the one that calls the shots if need be.”
The son, who handles marketing, advertising, volume pricing and category management for the chain, agreed that his father is a good example of achieving the American dream. Dad expressed pride recently amid JTM’s 50th anniversary this summer and the approaching 100-year milestone for Piggly Wiggly.
“I think he’s always had that wish that he would love to see it continue to thrive,” Milligan said of his father. “He said very lately several times how proud he is that we’re able to still compete against all the big boys and roll up our sleeves everyday. And he’s proud of the company and what we’ve done and what the third generation is doing now as well.”
JTM Corp. has grown both in stores and employees, with it having nearly 1,000 on its payroll today, and with an eye toward adding supermarkets if the right opportunity arises, Milligan said. It’s most recent addition was the 2015 opening of its state-of-the-art Woodruff Farm Road store that features environmentally friendly cooling and refrigeration.
That’s along the lines of the innovation Piggly Wiggly — famed for its smiling pig logo — is credited with as it helped modernize grocery retailing a century ago. That includes self-service where customers pluck items off shelves and take them to a checkout counter to pay. It also priced each item separately, began using refrigerated cases for produce, had employees wear uniforms, and emphasized lower prices through high-volume sales.
“The whole history of the company has been low overhead and that’s how we’re delivering lower prices,” Milligan said of Piggly Wiggly’s corporate oversight of franchise companies such as JTM. “They take that same philosophy with how they operate the franchise. It’s a very modest franchise fee and they expect the store operators to be the ones to carry the brunt of promotion and advertising and marketing and those sorts of things, and that’s the way we prefer it. That way, just like our stores are, it’s tailored to our market. We do what works best for us.”
Milligan said he understands JTM Corp. is the second-longest running family franchisee in the Piggly Wiggly chain, which is franchised by Keene, N.H.-based C&S Wholesale Grocers. There are more than 600 stores altogether in 17 states.
Asked if marking milestones such as 50 years in business — which many companies do not get to enjoy — is emotional for his family, Milligan downplayed that notion.
“Like dad always says, you wake up every day and try to do better than you did the day before,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like work because I get to come in here and be with my brothers and be with my nephews. It’s incredibly harmonious. A lot of times in family businesses there’s a bit of tug-of-war going on. But we’re all pulling in the same direction. That’s what makes it so enjoyable.”
Milligan also offered a nod to those who have helped the company along over five decades.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today without the employees that run these stores everyday,” he said. “Our customer base, which is our friends and neighbors, it’s their affinity for us that allows us to keep the doors open. We couldn’t be happier to be doing what we’re doing.”