In the age of Amazon, how a family-owned grocery in Smiths Station has survived 50 years

In the era of big-box stores and Amazon deliveries, a family-owned grocery in Smiths Station is celebrating 50 years of business this weekend.

Less than 1% of the nation’s more than 38,000 supermarkets are independent from the chains that dominate the business, according to Statista research cited in January 2019 by point-of-sale technology company Postec.

Terry’s Grocery staff and customers mention three main reasons why the store has survived and thrived:

  • Employee loyalty
  • Customer and community service
  • And that meat.

In the 1960s, Lonnie Terry worked at the Eagle & Phenix cotton mill in Columbus when he got into the grocery business. After starting two stores in Columbus, he envisioned the growth potential in east Alabama and bought land in Smiths.

“Nothing but a big sage field,” said Richard, his son and now the owner, who was 16 then. “None of these houses, hardly.”

It was rough in the beginning.

“He was sitting at the store and was doing $10 a day, all day,” Richard said. “It gradually picked up and got better and got better and got better.”

Now, Terry’s averages around 470 customers weekdays and 750 on weekends. And the company, Terry’s Holdings, has three convenience stores, storage units and apartments.

Smiths Station has continued to grow this past decade, from 4,926 residents in 2010 to an estimated 5,427 in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The current Terry’s Grocery was built in 1989, tripling the size of the original building, two years after Lonnie died.

Richard, 66, worked at Terry’s while attending Central High School and Columbus Technical College. His 29-year-old son, Dillon, worked at Terry’s while attending Glenwood School and Auburn University, then Columbus State for his MBA.

As he prepares to take over the business from Richard one day — no plan to retire yet — Dillon, the vice president, has brought updated technology to Terry’s, such as scanners in the convenience stores and improved back-office methods. But he is committed to keeping the motto emblazoned on one of the grocery’s walls: “Fresh, Friendly & Close to Home.”

Employee loyalty

Dillon used to not understand why Richard often wouldn’t fire an employee he consistently complained about.

“Now, I’m realizing you can’t just do that,” Dillon said. “They may have one bad quality, but they have a bunch of good qualities, and it’s hard to find good people. So you’ve really got to hold on to the good people you’ve got.”

Mary Jones has worked at Terry’s for 16 years, including as store manager the past seven years after starting as a cashier.

“It’s a great company,” she said. “They’re more than just a company. They’re like family. They’re there if you need them.”

Deborah Bradshaw, the bookkeeper, has worked at Terry’s 30 years. She said Richard’s “enthusiasm and passion for the businesses is contagious.

She started as a cashier at the former Terry’s Hardware. That business didn’t survive the big-box competition, making Terry’s Grocery staying power more remarkable.

“We’re just part of the community,” Bradshaw said.

Community service

Terry’s helps schools and other organizations with fundraisers by letting them ask for donations or conduct car washes in the parking lot. Special-education students from Smiths Station High School have a class at the store to learn job skills.

When elderly or disabled customers have trouble getting out of their car, Terry’s staff will shop for them. They’ve changed flat tires, jumped dead batteries and pumped gas for them.

Jones also recalled a few times when customers didn’t have money on them to pay all their bill, and staff or even fellow customers chipped in to account for the total.

And when Jason Barker’s daughter was 12 or 13 and walked to Terry’s by herself, the staff let her get what she wanted, and Barker paid the bill after work that day.

“You can’t do that (at any other grocery store),” said Barker, who owns Tire Master in Columbus. “… They’ve been nothing but nice.”

All uniformed law enforcement officers get free meals at Terry’s three convenience stores. School employees have been getting a 5% discount in August and September at Terry’s Grocery. Year-round, military on Tuesdays and seniors on Wednesdays get 5% discounts.

“The whole community around here,” Dillon explained, “everybody helps everybody.”

That never was more evident than last spring.

A fire started overnight in the ice cream freezer’s wiring and got into the ceiling. Three employees were unloading a truck and used extinguishers to put out most of the blaze before firemen arrived.

“God was just looking out after us,” Richard said. “If it would have been 1 minute later, the store would have probably burned down. … But it smoked the whole building. It ruined everything in that store.”

With help from a bunch of folks, however, Terry’s needed only 13 days to reopen. And customers were lined up at the door.

“The community really supported us,” Richard said.

That meat

A painting of the original store shows ground beef was 79 cents per pound there in the 1970s. It’s $2.79 per pound now, but Terry’s still is known for its low-priced and high-quality meat.

“We grind hamburger every day, and we cut our meat here,” Richard said. “A lot of stores are doing away with the market, just buying it packaged. … We have people coming from miles all over the place to get our meats.”

Barker said, “I can call ahead if I want something special, … and I can pick it up after work, even if the meat department is closed.”

50th anniversary celebration

Terry’s Grocery, 9209 Lee Road 246, will have a public celebration of its 50th anniversary from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7.

The event includes raffles, giveaways and free hotdogs, cake, popcorn, face-painting, jumping in a bouncy house and rides on a kids train, along with visitors from the Smiths Station Fire Department and surprise character appearances.

Asked what his father would think of the grocery reaching 50 years, Richard said, “He would be ecstatic.”

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.