Powered by meat department, store surpasses expectations
On the main street of McCaysville, Georgia, with the Tennessee border in its back yard, sits Hometown Foods IGA. Edward Vest and his wife, Lisa, have owned the picturesque mountain town’s sole grocery store for nearly 21 years.
Vest, who grew up in McCaysville, began his life in the grocery industry at a young age. The location that now houses his IGA used to be an A&P Grocery, where Vest got his first job in 1981.
After graduating from high school, A&P moved him to the Charlotte, North Carolina, area to manage a store. While there, his original A&P was damaged by flooding and shuttered.
“It sat empty for about seven years and a guy came through and he bought the building and he fixed it up. He made it into a large IGA,” Vest said.
Vest continued his career managing different stores around the Southeast. One of his last A&P ventures was a co-managing role in Wilkesburg, North Carolina. After that store closed, he began a career with Piggly Wiggly in Ducktown, Tennessee, less than 10 miles from McCaysville. He managed that store for nine years.
As Vest was so close at the time to the IGA and its owner, he was primed to purchase the business when it became available.
“I heard he was going to sell it,” Vest recalled. “I came over and talked to him. He told me that his manager would come first at auction, which I understood. So about two weeks later, my phone rang and it was him. He said, ‘If you’re still interested, let me know.’ Well, I called the bank right there to see what I could work out and – spoilers – it did work out for me.”
In the years since, Vest said Hometown Foods has outperformed what he could have imagined.
“This store here is probably the biggest success story, even with A&P and everything,” he said. “I guess [it’s different] because I own the store. But it has done far greater than I even expected it to. I’m in a great area. There’s no stores around me.”
The nearest store is in the neighboring town of Blue Ridge, Georgia, which is more than 10 miles south of McCaysville.
“Blue Ridge has grown by leaps and bounds, but everything has gotten so much over there that everything is moving to McCaysville.”
As everything has grown around him, Vest continues to be known throughout Northeast Georgia and Southeast Tennessee for the meat he offers. “I’ve got a lot of local people because I’m the only thing,” he said. “But we’ve got people with summer homes that come here. They live in Florida or other places…I’ll do so much more volume…I also get a lot of tourists.”
Due to the demand, Vest keeps the Hometown IGA meat department well staffed and stocked.
When he first bought the business, there was a single deck meat case. That was gone within a year. He now has a five-shelf, multideck and three full-time butchers. While the store “does better than he could have ever imagined,” he said about 30-40 percent of overall sales comes from the meat department.
Vest has upgraded his six-aisle store at every opportunity. Describing the site as “landlocked,” he said there wasn’t much room to grow outward. Instead, he has remodeled. This includes new flooring and ceiling, as well as new glass. He replaced the dairy case, added frozen food and extended the store itself.
When the IGA opened under its original owner, there was a small “porch” that was in front of the store, Vest said. He decided to knock out the store’s wall and enclose the porch to be able to house more inventory.
His most recent update to Hometown Foods happened just before the COVID-19 pandemic. He replaced the original sheetrock walls around the store with tongue-and-groove wood. He is always looking for ways to improve.
“I’m looking at a new sandwich case. I’m always open for suggestions – like when we go out to a food show or I stop at other stores to see if I can find something I can bring back to my own.”
He admitted that there is only “so much you can do with the space,” but he is proud of what he’s been able to accomplish.
“I don’t put myself above nobody. Take Ingles. Ingles has beautiful, beautiful stores and I know I’ll never look like that,” he said. “But people come into my store and they’ll say, ‘I could never dream you could keep as much in this store as you do as far as variety.’
“I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said we never get complaints, whether something’s wrong with the service or products. But overall, I would say compliments versus bad would be 99 to one. So many people brag on how they love to shop in our store.”