Danny Manning has come a long way since he started as a bagger at 15 years old at a Food Town store in Eight Mile, Alabama. He moved to stocking, found favor with the company and got a produce rack about a year later.
Once he graduated from high school, Manning went on to study computer programming. He went back to Food Town, which put him to work as a data processing manager at Campbell Grocery Co.
“At that time, there was no computer in that building. It was an IBM 402 Accounting Machine. It was programmed by boards with wires running from one hole to the next,” he said. “I learned how to do that and then the company was sold.”
A company called Opportunity Stores Inc. based in Corpus Christi, Texas, took over. It transferred Manning to Pensacola, Florida. There he started programming one of the first computers, a Burroughs B35.
“It was a big monstrosity,” Manning said. “It was a key punch-type, card-driven system.”
He became aware that the company was having trouble, so he asked a good friend who was a controller there how to get hold of a store.
“He turned a sheet of paper around and said, ‘Sign here and give me $39,000,’” he said. “My first store cost me $139,000, I had to come up with $39,000 worth of paper or cash. And I had neither.”
He did manage to take over the Food Town No. 3 in Eight Mile in October 1972. He remembers it well.
“It was a Saturday night at closing time—8 o’clock—when I took possession of the store,” he said.
His brother was assistant manager. Eight Mile was their hometown.
As Opportunity Stores Inc. continued to decline, store managers were buying up locations. Those stores all failed, and as they did, Manning would get a call asking him if he could take on another store.
“I was too dumb to quit, didn’t know a darned thing, but in any case, they kept offering and I kept taking,” he said. “Sometime in 1978, 1979, we actually closed the first store that I bought because it was not performing. At that time we had three other stores.”
Help from above
Manning spoke to The Shelby Report from the Foley store, which is about 10 miles from Gulf Shores.
“It’s been a weird ride,” he said. “I was probably the dullest pencil in the box. But somehow or another, the Good Lord and my family have taken care of me and I’ve got some great people working with me.”
He gives them most of the credit for his success.
“I know myself and I know I’m not capable of doing this thing by myself, but I’ve had some good opportunities and used really basic ideas for our business,” Manning said.
The nine Mobile locations are located in neighborhoods populated predominantly by African Americans.
“I spent my life—25, 26 years—running those stores,” he said. “In a manner of speaking, that was our niche.”
Other operators that served the white communities of Mobile moved out of the area as more African Americans moved in. Manning listened to his customers. He talked to them every day to understand their needs.
“Some of these older ladies who would come in the store, they didn’t have much of nothing, and every so often I’d give them a cake or a pie, and those days were fun to me,” he said. “Those folks didn’t see my color and I didn’t see them in that way. It was just a very good 25 years I spent doing this.”
His family members had been involved with some of the stores, but as they moved on, Manning decided to bring in his best friend in January 1996. Kamal “KC” Constantine was Manning’s best man when he married his wife, Debbie.
“He’s a good grocery man, too,” Manning said.
With Constantine on board, Manning said they started over with four stores. By the end of July that year, they opened a fifth. The company grew from there.
Manning and Constantine taught new employees who came into the company how to treat customers well.
“Those are the same practices we have today. Of course, we’ve learned a lot about how to sell, what to buy,” he said. “We made so many errors in the very beginning that it was very easy to find out what you’re supposed to buy just by looking at your errors.”
The company gained the four stores in Baldwin County last year when Tommy Cain decided to retire from the grocery business. He sold his four Piggly Wiggly Cost Plus stores to Manning.
Manning said the stores are doing well. He is replacing the Loxley location with a new store that is expected to open next spring. Manning Inc. now employs about 600 people.
More than a grocer
Manning’s company works closely with local vendors, including the Plant Fairy, a company in Fairhope that sells plants. It was invited to display its wares at Manning’s stores.
Manning also works with Stapleton Catering for an annual event each November called the Taste of LA (Lower Alabama).
“We work with close to 150 different small, independent vendors,” he said. “One of these we took on a few years ago was a little girl. She was playing in the kitchen; she was about 9 years old at the time, and she started mixing spices together, and she came up with a good recipe. Now it is called Key’s Southern Spice. I took her and her daddy to meet a broker in Birmingham and now she’s selling merchandise in a six-state region.
“In the meantime, we sell some groceries every now and then,” Manning said with a chuckle.
Manning said the key to success as an independent grocer is learning to work with people, both customers and employees, and capitalizing on strong relationships.
“Like I said, I ain’t the smartest fella in the world, but I think I do know how to treat people,” he said.
The stores support Kiwanis, Rotary Clubs, local chambers of commerce and more. There are steak cook-offs in Fairhope and his store plays a big role in the town party by donating the meat. The stores provide help whenever a school asks for something.
Some stores host wine pairings in conjunction with local restaurants and invite them to show off their offerings. This year, Manning will kick off beer tastings with less fancy fare, like chicken wings.
“One of our stores has the largest selection of wine and craft beers in the state of Alabama, from what I’m told,” he said.
Corporate vs. cooperative
With wholesalers, Manning experienced corporate ownership previous to his current co-op relationship with Piggly Wiggly Alabama Distributing Co. In the corporate setting, he said the people he spoke to seemed to never really know who he was.
“You were there to do a job and so was he,” he said. “When it comes to the final answer, generally speaking, you never got it. Or it was not what you needed to hear. That’s the corporate world, in my opinion.”
Piggly Wiggly Alabama Distributing Co. in Bessemer is the second co-op he’s belonged to and he said it likely will be the last. Manning has worked with the co-op for the last 18 years.
“When you have something to say with these people, they actually listen,” he said. “They usually not only listen, but they usually do what you are talking about.”
Prepared foods and fresh ideas
As Manning remodels his stores, he is applying some fresh thinking.
“We’re taking out old ideas about the delicatessens in our stores—that’s a late ‘70s or early ‘80s idea,” he said. “We don’t just have fried chicken anymore.”
Rotisserie and fried chicken still will be available, but the stores are putting in self-service salad bars, hot food buffets, chicken wing stations, grab-and-go barbecue sandwiches and more. Those buffets will be double-sided and include offerings like pork chops, Certified Angus Beef pot roast, broccoli, asparagus and zucchini.
“And our salad bar is just amazing. The one in the Foley store will be 14 and a half feet long,” he said. “It will be doubled-sided, too.”
Those changes are part of rethinking the old ways of doing things, he said. Sometimes that means bringing back offerings that for whatever reason lost favor.
“When I got this company, we were only selling fish one day a week and I started selling fish every day of the week. It’s been something I thought the customer wanted,” Manning said. “We moved from selling two to two-and-a-half boxes a week of fish to three boxes a day.”
He is reopening seafood departments in stores once owned by retailers like Food World and Delchamps that had them in the past.
“But I’m not opening it up as a grocery store-type seafood department. I went to the professionals in this area and they’re called Lartigue Seafood,” Manning said. “They’re located in Mobile and Orange Beach and I have worked a deal out with them on how they can come in and we can coexist in the same place. They run the seafood department and I take care of the grocery business. It’s been doing very, very well.”