Last updated on November 14th, 2016 at 04:52 pm
Jesse Lewis, who has spent nearly 60 years in the grocery industry, has stepped down from his day-to-day role as EVP and COO at K-VA-T/Food City in Abingdon, Virginia, and launched his own firm, JAL Consulting LLC.
Lewis, and his wife of 57 years, Joyce, reside in Piney Flats, Tennessee, in the eastern part of the state. But Lewis says he is willing to go “wherever I might be able to make a difference or make a contribution.”
With his first client, Mitchell Grocery Corp. in Albertville, Alabama, Lewis is acting as an operations advisor, working with them “on their structure and their people.
“I will work with them in every aspect of the business where they might need me or want me to work,” he continued. “What I have to bring to the table is 59 years’ experience that goes from stock clerk to managing partner, chairman of the board and CEO of a chain, and I’ve done everything in between. I don’t have any magical answers; I just have a lot of experience.”
He also brings a different viewpoint, an outsider’s objectivity.
“I’m offering another set of eyes to look at a situation,” he says.
Lewis stresses the importance of people in every organization, regardless of what else is going on.
“People—that’s really the answer. Get the right people in the right slots, give them the right training, set the standard and have expectations that they reach that standard, and it’s just amazing to me what happens,” says Lewis. “You can have the brick and the mortar, all the assets, but the greatest asset of all is people.”
Those who want to contact Lewis about his consulting services should email him at
Jesse Lewis’ long and successful career
Lewis, who is 77, spent 22 years with K-VA-T/Food City as EVP and COO.
Semi-retired at 55 after helping turn around a supermarket chain in Missouri and getting those stores sold, Jack Smith approached Lewis about coming to work for him, and apparently he was pretty persuasive. Lewis and his wife Joyce moved back east—to eastern Tennessee, specifically—for Lewis to help run operations at K-VA-T.
Today, those roles are being filled by former Safeway executive Greg Sparks, but Lewis will remain at Food City through the end of the year while getting his consulting business off the ground.
It’s not going to be easy for him to leave K-VA-T, he says.
“I never intended to play that role (COO) again, and 22 years later, it’s eating me up to give it up. But I initiated this change,” he says. “I just felt like it was something this company had to do. I’ll be quite honest with you, I didn’t realize that making the change would have the effect on me that it’s having, but giving up my day-to-day involvement with my buddies is a real challenge.”
But Lewis is not one of those people that plans to ever be not working at something.
“I cannot imagine getting up in the morning and not having a purpose,” he says. “I can’t imagine a day of not being involved in the food industry. It’s literally been my life.”
He started his career in a Kroger store in Birmingham, Alabama, in January 1958.
“I was going to work in that grocery store until I found something better, as I tried to go to school. Sixty years later, I’m still looking for something better,” he jokes. “But I was very fortunate to work for Kroger and get the training I received there.”
He became a store manager for Kroger and then served as store manager for another company before becoming a district manager.
“Some of my best success was at Red Food Stores in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I filled the COO role. We had wonderful people there, and the company was very successful.”
He left Red Foods in December 1989 and became part owner of Consumers Markets, a chain of 36 stores based in Springfield, Missouri.
He and the other owners were able to turn the stores around and then sold them to The Fleming Co.
He and Joyce then moved to Alabama—her home state and where Jesse’s career had started. There, he served on the board of Mobile-based Delchamps.
“At that point, I was going to cut back and not work as hard. Jack Smith, the founder of K-VA-T, and I started talking and I ended up here. It will be 22 years (in November). It’s been a very interesting and rewarding time because of the people. There is just a tremendous group of people here, as it was at Red Food Stores.”
As it happens, Lewis’ history with Red Food Stores wasn’t quite over.
Food City’s 2015 purchase of 29 Bi-Lo stores in the Chattanooga area included many former Red Food Stores locations, a number of them that Lewis opened himself.
“We’ve just been there for a little over a year, but going back to Chattanooga was a tremendous experience for me,” he says. “It was extremely rewarding, and it was shocking to me the number of people still there who were there when I left in 1989. It’s kind of like a homecoming.”
He went into one of the stores and saw a head cashier who had been with Red Food when he left, and they were able to recognize each other in spite of the years that had passed.
“To see people like that was a tremendous experience,” he adds. “One of the toughest parts for me in stepping back is not being a part of the ongoing Chattanooga conversion process. I have a lot of old friends there inside and outside the company.”
But he is confident in the company’s success in that new market.
“I think Food City has a great opportunity and a great future in Chattanooga; I like to say ‘southwest Tennessee/northwest Georgia.’ Like any other market, it’s not going to be easy, but there is a great plan in place and we’re on the right track. Just gotta keep moving down that track.”