Co-owner: Many towns would be ‘food deserts if we weren’t there’
by Mary Margaret Stewart, staff writer
The way Ron Martin sees it, small-town local grocery stores like those operated by Virginia-based Grant’s IGA are “a lifeline to the community.” Without them, many towns would be left without access to fresh food.
Grant is president and co-owner of the grocery chain, which has 16 locations in Virginia and West Virginia.
“Every location that we own probably has been the shopping place for groceries for that community for years and years and years,” he said.
Martin has been working since 2003 with business partners Ronnie Cruey, VP and co-owner, and Randle Grant, also VP. He’s been involved on and off with IGA stores for a while, though.
Prior to attending law school, Martin had worked with Cruey at another IGA. He was working as an attorney when Acme Markets, a large independent in the area, went bankrupt.
“Ronnie was working [at Acme] at the time, and so he went to work for Randle again – he had worked off and on for Randle for several years,” Martin said. “We started looking at opening a store together.
“Randle’s family has owned independent grocery stores in the area, off and on since the 1940s…Randle wanted to be a partner in the store because he didn’t want to lose Ronnie. He was his butcher and was making him a lot of money. And so, we partnered on the first store in 2003.”
From there, the three men closed on their second store in 2005, taking over another Acme store that had gone out of business. And that has been their M.O. to this day.
“All of the stores that we own have been bankrupt or closed by someone else,” Martin said. “In 2008, we purchased Randle’s one store into our partnership as well. But even that store had been bankrupted by someone else.”
Not all the closures involve bankruptcy. Martin said sometimes a national chain has left an area or an independent may not have had a succession plan in place.
“Our store group is a unique group,” he said. “They range in size from 4,500 square feet up to 38,000 square feet.
“We service a lot of smaller communities. We opened one in a neighboring county of Bland, and Bland only has 4,000 to 5,000 residents. It’s a little teeny, tiny 4,500-square foot store that still had wooden floors.
“We tore all that out, raised the rafters so that even though the store is still small, it still has all of the amenities of a large store.”
According to Martin, most the company’s stores are in the “original neighborhoods where, like it or not, most are in lower income and older housing areas.”
“There are a lot of folks who walk to the stores or ride public transportation to the stores,” he said. “And so I would say that well over half of them serve areas that would otherwise be food deserts, or that would only be served by Dollar General, which would have some clothes and foods and that kind of stuff, but no fresh products.
“I would say well over half of our stores are in areas that would otherwise be food deserts if we weren’t there.”
As for what a typical day looks like for the business partners, Martin said they “do what’s necessary to get the business run.”
“Randle is retired, so he doesn’t have any day-to-day operational activities,” Martin said. “He’s there if we have a question or if we need somebody to run something somewhere…by and large, he doesn’t spend a lot of time in the stores.
“We now have a corporate office, and I spend a lot of time in that office just because there’s always something with HR or vendors or buying or that kind of stuff. I don’t get out as much as I used to. When we were smaller, I was in every store every day.
“As we grew, I tried to get into every store every week. And then as we grew further, I’ve tried to get into every store every couple of weeks. Until COVID, I tried to get into every store at least every month. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t.”
On the flip side, the pandemic brought early days of frantic business, where Martin and Ronnie were out stocking the stores and helping where needed. Recently, he’s been confined to tackling business from the office in Bluefield, West Virginia. All in all, the past few months have been “unlike anything” he’s ever experienced.
“It’s been crazy busy. Business has been at a frantic pace. It’s slowing down at this point – people have adjusted the way they buy,” he continued.
“We now offer click and pick up services, which we didn’t offer before. For us, it’s been an adjustment in how to deliver goods to your customers.
“We’ve done all the safety stuff that everybody else has done, as far as directional signs on the floor, social distancing while you’re in the store…but early on, it was just pandemonium. It was like 20, 30 snow days in a row.
“It was a process of trying to get goods. We called and begged and pleaded with everybody we’ve ever purchased anything from to try to get merchandise on the shelves.”
Looking to the future, Martin said expansion has always been a natural extension of their operations.
“We’ve never really gone about this business with a business plan of, ‘Oh, we need to expand.’ It’s always been opportunity driven. And there are multiple opportunities that we’re evaluating right now,” he said.
Growth in technology also is on the radar of the company, which has gone through several pandemic-related upgrades this year, including the addition of an e-commerce platform.
“We’re looking at perpetual ordering because, right now, it’s a manual process,” Martin said. “Our managers order for the stores all the time, so we’re working on rolling out a perpetual inventory system.”
To learn about the current state of the food industry in Virginia from the VFIA executive director, click here.