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Longtime Texas Grocer ‘Sonny’ Williams Dies At Age 78

J.L. Sonny Williams
J.L. "Sonny" Williams

Joseph J.L. “Sonny” Williams, a longtime grocer and minority owner of the Dallas Mavericks, died at home surrounded by family on July 10, 2021.

He and his wife, Gretchen Minyard Williams, her sister, Liz Minyard, and cousin, Bob Minyard, ran Minyard Food Stores Inc. Together, they built a billion-dollar business which grew to become one of the largest family-owned supermarket chains in Texas.

The grocery business was in his blood from an early age. He started working for Minyard as a 13-year-old package clerk, working his way up the company ladder to eventually become president and chief operating officer of the local supermarket chain. 

He was born March 1, 1943, in Memphis to Pauline Goza Williams. The single mother of three moved her family to Dallas in 1956 and was soon offered a job at the newly-opened Minyard Food Store at Peavy and Garland Road in East Dallas. With Williams by her side when she accepted the job, H.J. “Hap” Minyard, one of five siblings who together co-founded the company, asked the young teen what he could do. Williams quickly answered that he could sack groceries. Hap told him to show up with his mom the next Monday and start bagging.

Little did he know that his part-time job would turn into a lifetime career. Williams worked his way through school, attending W.H. Gaston Middle School and then Bryan Adams High School, where he graduated in 1961. While still in high school, he became an assistant store manager, and less than a year after graduation, he was promoted to store manager of the Minyard store where he first sacked and stocked groceries. He was just 19 years old, the youngest store manager in the history of the company.

Williams attended Dallas Baptist University while working full-time as a store manager. He earned his bachelor of science degree in 1970. Proving himself to be an innovative executive and savvy businessman, he continued to rise through the ranks. After managing a store for 10 years, he was promoted to district manager, corporate VP, then EVP and general manager in charge of retail operations in 1980. In 1987, he was named company president.

Under his leadership, Minyard Food Stores Inc. grew to as many as 83 stores with 7,200 employees before it was sold to an investment group in 2004. Williams said his proudest moment as company president was buying 27 Safeway stores in 1987 and opening 24 of those in just five days. Three others opened only a few months later. Other company milestones during his tenure included reaching a billion dollars in annual sales and creating two other divisions, Sack’n Save Warehouse Food Stores and Carnival Food Stores.

As active as he was in business, Mr. Williams was just as active as a volunteer. He served as an elected member of the Dallas County Community College District Board of Trustees, served on the boards of directors of the State Fair of Texas, SMU Athletic Forum, Dallas Baptist University and American Red Cross.

He is survived by his wife of 43 years, Gretchen Minyard Williams; children, Claire (Chase) Caywood, Connor Williams; granddaughter, Ivy Lisbeth Caywood; twin sister, Mary Ann (Perry) Williams Barber; sister-in-law, Liz Minyard Lokey; and numerous nieces and nephews.

In addition to his mother, he was preceded in death by his sister, Beverly Curtis; brothers-in-law, Reg Curtis and Paul Lokey; and nephew, Bryan Curtis.

A memorial service was held at 2 p.m. July 16 at Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.

Memorial donations can be made to the Sonny and Gretchen Williams Scholarship Fund, Dallas Baptist University, 3000 Mountain Parkway, Dallas, Texas, 75211; Leukemia Texas, 4925 N. O’Connor Blvd Suite 125, Irving, TX 75062; esophageal cancer research at Baylor Scott & White Health.

Restland Funeral Home and Memorial Park in Dallas was in charge of arrangements.

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