From IGA News
The morning of July 28 hit different from other Thursdays for Isom IGA Owner and 2007 IGA International Retailer of the Year Gwen Christon. After a 12-hour deluge in eastern Kentucky brought 7-10 inches of rain overnight and raised the North Fork Kentucky River about 11 feet above flood stage – an occurrence the National Weather Service deemed a one in 1,000 chance of happening in the area – Gwen and her husband Arthur drove to check on her store.
“We turned off (Route) 15, and I said, ‘We’re in trouble. We’re in bad trouble,” Gwen told the Lexington Herald-Leader, wiping tears off her cheeks. “We’re still in trouble.”
Arthur dropped Gwen off at the store and went to check on an employee at their home. When Gwen got inside, she found the store covered in mud and slime. Products were knocked off shelves after more than six feet of water had crested and retreated inside the store. But Gwen was not alone for long thanks to her supportive community. Employees, community members and a team from her licensed distribution center MDI quickly arrived to help clean and evaluate what they could salvage.
“We knew it was going to be bad when we heard the store had been under water, but when we got there the devastation was just unbelievable,” said Stewart Boyer, senior director of sales for MDI’s north region.
The team went to work determined to make progress on clean-up, but after several hours they realized it was unsafe to continue.
“I’ve seen tornados and fires, and pretty much everything else that could happen to a store in my career,” Boyer said about the floods that impacted a number of IGA stores in eastern Kentucky, though none as dramatically as Isom IGA. “This was the worst. A few hours in that store was the limit we could take, physically and emotionally.”
A community pillar
In the small unincorporated Kentucky community of about 1,400 people, Isom IGA is a pillar of the town and the only full service grocery store for miles.
“You think of it as a store but it’s actually a gathering place for everyone,” Gwen shared. “This is where friends meet friends. They come here not only to buy groceries but to socialize and spend time together.”
The store opened in 1973, with Gwen joining the team that summer. 25 years later, Gwen bought the store with her husband Arthur, and they have owned it for nearly 25 years. Over the past 50 years, Isom IGA has become much more than a job to Gwen.
“The store is my home away from home, and the employees and community are an extension of my family,” she said.
Like family, the store provides more than just fresh food to the community. It serves as an employer of many first jobs for local teens and long-term careers for adults—some employees have been there for over 20 years. As a locally owned business, money spent at the store stays in the community, going to local employees and suppliers.
Gwen herself serves as an entrepreneurial inspiration for young girls and women in the community and beyond. Hers is a story of loyalty, resilience, and adaptability. As the employee who bought the store after working there for 25 years, she has a unique perspective on what works for her store and her community.
That perspective has led her to make countless innovative investments over the years to keep her store relevant, including most recently adding self-checkout lanes to better serve customers and solar panels to reduce energy costs and consumption. She also launched an e-commerce solution early in the pandemic to ensure shoppers could purchase groceries online if needed.
Family helping family
With such a tight-knit community, it’s no surprise that so many have pitched in to help.
“Everyone has come through to tell me that they would do anything that they can to help me. We’ve got friends and neighbors around the place who’ve been cooking, bringing food in to feed all the workers that have been here trying to clean the store up and they just take care of you. We take care of each other,” Gwen said.
IGA CEO John Ross sees this benevolent spirit throughout the independent grocery industry. “Helping others in a time of need is what we as Americans do,” he said. “And in our industry – where the owners, employees and the community are so closely knit – is when that spirit of helping really shines.”
To that end, Gwen is ensuring her community has access to freshly made, nutritious meals while store clean-up is underway. She has lent the Isom IGA parking lot to World Central Kitchen, a non-profit providing those meals to anyone who needs them. “Isom IGA has always been the heart of the community, it only makes sense that we would be the hub for people to get help now when they need it,” she said.
Despite the outpouring of support to salvage the store and the thousands of pounds of products inside, currently it’s not safe to reopen.
“The health department has already been here and condemned the whole store, so it has to be completely emptied and sanitized before we can even start to think about putting the store back,” Gwen told LEX-18.
The clean-up is now being handled by a professional crew who have the skills and materials to safely handle and dispose of the remnants. To help keep the store’s 23 employees afloat while it is closed, the cleaning company will hire and train any member of Gwen’s team who wants to help.
In the meantime, Gwen and the Alex Lee Inc. team, which includes distributor MDI, are looking at what rebuilding will entail. One thing they know is that it will be expensive.
According to Nick Carlino, MDI EVP of sales and merchandising, insurance will cover about a quarter of the cost to reopen, which is estimated to be at least $2 million. With that in mind, the MDI and Alex Lee Inc. team has already leapt into action, researching available funding avenues, including FEMA relief, grants and small business loans. “Our goal is to help Gwen find all the support and resources she needs to keep serving this community,” Carlino said.
That includes looking at ways to help the community now, said Kimberly George, SVP of communications and corporate citizenship at Alex Lee Inc. “We’re talking directly with relief organizations to see how we can best help them get what they need.”
“It’s critical that everyone who is able to chip in to help Gwen and Isom IGA rebuild,” Ross said. “When rural stores like Isom IGA close, communities suffer. Often the small businesses that make up a smaller town fade when the local grocery store goes away. It creates a food desert where people are forced to shop from convenience stores for food. They will lack access to fresh meat and produce, and incidentally, cases of heart disease and diabetes will go up dramatically.”
At press time, the GoFundMe campaign had raised more than $26,000 from 223 donors, thanks to media coverage on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and area news sources.
If you would like to help Isom IGA rebuild, click here to donate to the appropriate fundraiser.
For more IGA news from The Shelby Report, click here.