Richard Holley didn’t start his career in the grocery industry, but he has found a home there. The store manager of Gulfside IGA Plus in Carrabelle, Florida, had traveled extensively for previous jobs before he decided to settle down.
A self-proclaimed military brat, Holley’s parents hailed from Panama City Beach, which is where they ended up after his father retired when Holley was 13. He has lived in Carrabelle for 14 years.
He started in the grocery industry about eight years ago, getting a job in the produce department. He moved up to assistant manager, a job he held for about four years before being named store manager.
“The biggest part is that you meet a lot of people,” he said of why he likes the grocery business. “We’re a small town, so I knew a lot of people already and I think now I know pretty much everybody.”
While Carrabelle, with a population of about 2,700 people, is the very definition of a small town – no traffic or caution lights – it is growing.
“We’re growing pretty fast,” Holley said. “We’re on the Gulf Coast, about an hour south of Tallahassee. This used to be a little fishing community, fish and shrimp. But due to regulations and everything, it’s not near what it used to be. Now, we attract a lot of tourists.”
Carrabelle is east of Panama City Beach, on what’s known as the Forgotten Coast.
“It’s just small towns dotted along the coast as you get down closer to the Tampa area,” Holley said.
Gulfside IGA Plus is owned by Frenvey Inc. out of Lake City, Florida. The company has six Save A Lot stores across central and north Florida. Gulfside Plus is the company’s only IGA store, according to Holley. It also is the only grocery store in Carrabelle.
As far as competition goes, the closest grocers are about 20 miles away at St. George Island and Apalachicola.
“We’re probably 40 minutes from Crawfordville, Florida, which is just south of Tallahassee. That’s the closest big city,” Holley said. “It’s not even big, but is getting bigger. They have a Walmart, a Winn-Dixie and are currently building a Publix there.”
Gulfside IGA Plus has been in Carrabelle about 25 years, Holley said. The current owner purchased it in the mid-1990s.
A fire destroyed the store building in 2002. “They had to completely rebuild it from the ground up,” Holley said. “The building is in pretty fair shape; it’s not that old.”
Some improvements have been made in recent years, such as replacing pizza ovens and fryers in the deli and transitioning to LED lighting. Since they are more energy efficient, the improvements are saving money over time, Holley said.
Pandemic had few effects
According to Holley, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t affect the Carrabelle area much. Boat ramps and other businesses shut down for about two weeks, but that was it.
“We actually excelled during the pandemic, if you will,” Holley said. “We didn’t have the shutdowns everybody else did.”
The town’s population grew a bit during that time as people with vacation homes in Carrabelle came to stay and others followed, “I guess with nothing else to do,” Holley said. “It wasn’t like record-setting numbers, but we didn’t die down a bit.”
Gulfside IGA Plus depends on local customers throughout the year, especially during the winter, but has steadily been getting busier even then. “And the summer’s just taken off,” he said.
One thing that helped during the pandemic was having UNFI as the store’s grocery distributor, Holley said.
“They have a distribution center right in Quincy, which is maybe just over an hour from us,” he explained. “So we’ve really been in pretty good shape. There were a little spots here and there, but overall it hasn’t been very bad here.”
An issue that is affecting grocers across the country also is a problem for Gulfside – labor. Finding workers is a constant issue, hampered by the fact that the store is competing with St. George Island and other areas for summer labor, Holley said.
“They are able to pay more than we are,” he added. “We counter that with offering full-time work, but it’s still a struggle.”
The store does not offer online shopping at this time, but it may be considered in the future. Gulfside IGA Plus has been on Facebook for only about two to three years. Again, an obstacle to offering online shopping is manpower.
“There’s no way we could do that right now,” Holley said.
Advertising is handled through a weekly flyer, mailed to Carrabelle’s residents. The store also uses its Facebook page for promotions. As it is such a small town, Holley has not had to advertise much in the past.
“Of course, now it’s starting to grow considerably,” he said. “Florida is getting a lot of people moving into the state and we’re one of those areas. It’s definitely growing here, and we’re trying to keep up with it the best we can.”
The store’s deli fared well during the pandemic and continues to do so. It offers a full breakfast six days a week, as well as lunch specials. Hunt’s Brothers Pizza is available daily, as are fried chicken and potato boats.
Now, due to inflation, prices have gone up. “You hear a lot of feedback on that, of course,” said Holley, noting that inflation has been tough.
“When you’re already short on labor and you have to try to replace tags on an almost weekly basis, it gets really hectic. That’s probably one of our biggest problems now,” he said.
The store’s bread vendors recently increased prices for the second time this year. Holley pointed out that Frito Lay has stopped printing prices on its bags of potato chips.
“Apparently, they’re afraid of a couple more price hikes within the year,” he said. “Just that added work on an already stressed-out workforce makes it really tough. That’s probably one of our biggest challenges right now is keeping up with the prices.”
Small town life
Holley enjoys being part of a small town, with Gulfside IGA Plus at the heart of the community. The store supports local sports teams and schools. It also reaches out during times of disaster.
When Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Gulf Coast in October 2018, Carrabelle sustained some damage while nearby Mexico Beach was destroyed.
Gulfside was closed, without power, for about four days, Holley recalled. While the store has a small generator that backs up the registers on the front end, it won’t run the freezers. The store lost a lot of its frozen goods.
“The first couple of days, we stayed out in front of the store with pallets of ice and gave away all we had to help people as much as we could,” he said.
The store donated pallets of water and smaller goods to send to Mexico Beach and conducted several fundraisers for those hit hard by the storm. The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office sent trailers to pick up store donations and take them to areas in need.
Holley said that’s an example of a small community. “We really stick together and help each other out.”
Gulfside shoppers often see people they know as they walk through the store and will stop and chat. “It’s more like ‘Andy Griffith’ than you would see in big cities,” Holley said.
“The big thing here is if the weather’s nice, people are coming. There’s great fishing in the area and great beaches…if the weather’s good, we’re busy.”
For more information, visit gulfsideplus.iga.com.