Last updated on August 27th, 2023 at 08:42 pm
Nestled at the base of the Appalachian Mountains in northern Georgia sits the aptly named Foothills IGA, which has been serving the nearby communities of Big Canoe and Marble Hill for 21 years.
Former owners Jeff and Sandy Downing, who recently retired, committed themselves to exemplary customer service, quality food and connection with their customers. The store has earned IGA Five Star Status every year since opening.
In 2015, Jeff Downing and Foothills IGA were named IGA International Retailer of the Year. Nominated by its supplier, Hickory, North Carolina-based Merchants Distributors Inc., they had been a finalist for the award in 2008. Also in 2015, Jeff Downing received the Legacy Award by the Georgia Food Industry Association.
In presenting the award, the association stated: “The GFIA Legacy Award honors an individual leader who creates lasting change and a measurable difference in their community, the food industry and the GFIA…Jeff Downing excels at all three.”
But flash forward eight years and retirement beckons for the Downings, who are under contract to sell the store to Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Lowes Foods. The sale is expected to finalize in September. The Shelby Report attended a retirement party in their honor July 27, where Jeff Downing’s commitment to customers and legacy of service was on full display.
In addition to GFIA, Downing has served in leadership roles in organizations such as the Rotary Club, Pickens County Chamber of Commerce, Hope House, a local food bank, and the Good Samaritan Health & Wellness Center, which provides free health care to the uninsured.
One of his proudest accomplishments occurred while serving as Rotary president. “We championed the cause of the Ferst Foundation,” Downing said.
The foundation was founded by Robin Ferst, who though born deaf was inspired by a lifetime of reading and working with children to create an organization to promote literacy among kindergarten-age children. Sponsors send a book a month to registered children up until their fifth birthday.
“We’ve sent out over 150,000 books. It’s made a substantial difference, we think, in the community,” Downing said.
For that type of commitment, Downing was named the Pickens County Citizen of the Year in 2014.
“I like to keep myself busy,” he said. “We feel very fortunate to do what we’ve done to serve this community. It’s really a special situation…because we’re very involved in the community…all these years, I’ve enjoyed going to work at least 90 percent of the time.”
While he had tried to get his wife to retire “for years,” Downing said he knew at the start of 2023 this would be his last.
Downing’s grocery career began in high school. As a freshmen in college, he and Sandy married. He started taking college courses at night before coming to a realization at age 21.
“My buddies that I was behind in college a bit were graduating, taking jobs and making half what I was making,” he recalled. “I guess that’s when I decided I’d make a career in this business.”
During his first 10 years, he had at least 17 different positions. “I was exposed to a lot of different things, whether it was operations … [serving as] a liaison between our controller and financial people in the merchandising and marketing teams,” he said. “And I was involved in real estate, human resources, produce, meat and deli and grocery. I had a pretty broad base.”
At age 32, Downing became the youngest VP in the New Jersey-based Grand Union Company, which at the time had A&P banner stores throughout the Southeast. He then became group VP for 108 stores throughout the region.
Downing continued at the head of the Atlanta and Carolina divisions until 1996. At the time, the company planned to build five stores a year for five years to keep up with growing retailers such as Publix, Kroger and Walmart. According to Downing, the company eventually decided to pursue that plan elsewhere.
“I was told that our capital plan was ‘frozen.’ I knew we couldn’t survive, so I decided to leave. That’s when I became an independent grocer,” he explained.
He said he chose the IGA brand because it was recognizable and due to his respect for MDI, having previously worked with them over the years. “IGA had a good private label program, which I felt like I needed, and a good benefit program for employees,” he said.
That same year, the Downings purchased a shopping center about 50 miles north of the Georgia line in Bryson City, North Carolina. Downing was familiar with the site as it housed an A&P he had previously overseen.
“I knew the store, knew the history of it and the employees. It was a good store, albeit an older store. It had been around a long time with a long history of profitability, so I became the landlord,” Downing said.
He decided not to renew the store’s lease, telling the occupant he would buy the inventory and equipment if it left early. Then in March 1997, the Downings opened their first IGA store.
The family was still living in the Atlanta area, but Downing would visit the store a few times a week. And he was already looking for another business opportunity, which would come later that same year when he met with the developers of the shopping center that would eventually house Foothills IGA.
“By ’98, I had signed a letter of intent to be their anchor and develop a center and attract other people. And that’s how this came into being,” he explained. “We were part-timers. We basically had a weekend home up here.”
Drawing on his background in real estate and marketing, Downing spent nearly a year studying the viability of a grocery store in the Marble Hill area. He said his projections were confirmed by a third party.
Sandy Downing had no previous experience in the grocery industry before Foothills opened. She retired from her career as a registered nurse when the family moved to the area to open the store. She was part of the opening process just as much as her husband.
“I always felt like I was a part of it, I just didn’t know how I would fit in. I told Jeff, ‘I’ll do anything, but don’t make me cook,’” she recalled.
When Foothills opened in January 2002, she created a floral and gift shop. “The lady that was here was teaching me, she got me on going to the wholesalers and going and dealing with people who had the flowers. That was a process,” she said.
She described leaving the boutique shop as “kind of bittersweet.”
“I put a lot of myself into that. I have high hopes for it to continue. Somebody else will pick it up,” she said.
Since opening, Foothills IGA has undergone two expansions. However, the Downings have reinvested in and renovated the store in some way every year or two.
At one time, they had three stores. Following a health scare in 2005, Downing decided it was time to scale back. He didn’t renew the lease for their convenience store in the Big Canoe community and sold the Bryson City grocery store.
With Lowes poised to take over operation of Foothills IGA, President Tim Lowe attended the Downings’ retirement party July 27.
“Jeff has been in the industry for many decades…he is a consummate professional,” Lowe said. “He understands and knows the grocery business probably as good as anybody. His ability to build relationships because he cares about people is just over the top.
“We’re very humbled to even have the opportunity to possibly be able to step in here, to continue to be able to take the legacy that he has built…we’re honored that he would be willing to entrust it to us.”
When asked about retirement, Jeff Downing said they are looking forward to more free time.
“I’ve always had very good people working for me, so I’ve kind of come and gone as I please,” he said. “For years, we’ve traveled a lot…I’ll play a little more golf than what I have been playing. We’re part-timers in Florida. We’ll spend more time there than we have been.”
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