By Lorrie Baumann
Foothills IGA is located Marble Hill, Georgia, a community of around 30,000 people in the foothills of the north Georgia mountains, about 75 miles north of the Atlanta airport. The store was recently named an IGA 2015 USA International Retailer of the Year.
Owner Jeff Downing started his career working for various grocery companies and was a vice president of A&P before deciding to go into business for himself in 1996. His first venture on his own was the purchase of a store in North Carolina that had been an A&P. He was living in Atlanta and had a weekend home in Big Canoe, a gated resort community that’s adjacent to Marble Hill, so when he decided to expand his company, he looked around the neighborhood close to his weekend home, where a shopping center was under construction. The development company heard he was looking and got in touch with an offer for the storefront in which the Foothills IGA is now located. “It just fell into place,” Downing says now.
Foothills IGA broke ground in 2001 and opened in January of 2002 with a mix of gourmet products and everyday staples to meet the grocery needs of a very diverse customer base – the town has an estimated median household income of around $50,000 and about half of Foothills IGA shoppers have high-end incomes and want better wine, organic produce and all-natural beef while the other half buy more pantry staples. “It was the intent to appeal to everyone to succeed because we have very few people,” Downing says. “The needs of some require more thought, more research, a little more seeking out of products…. In a lot of ways, we’re like a big-city market.” Downing moved permanently to Big Canoe in 2000 and sold the North Carolina store in 2006.
His store is about 10 miles from the closest big-box grocer, and to keep his clientele shopping with him instead of taking their business to Kroger, Publix or Walmart, Downing stocks his 25,000 square foot market with a great produce department, a full service floral department, the first lobster tank in the county, certified Angus beef and 1,800+ SKUs of wines. On top of that, breads are baked fresh daily, USDA choice and prime meats are cut to order, and the seafood selection includes fresh fish and seafood from the Georgia coast and elsewhere. Whole chickens are cut in the store to supply shoppers with what Downing calls “an enormous amount of fried chicken.” He added a pharmacy in 2008, and today, that department represents what Downing calls “quite a nice business.”
“We do a large wine business in our store,” he says. “We get as much variety as we can in our store while staying very, very close to what our customers want.”
Downing’s research into products that bring something special to his store while staying very close to what customers want recently took the form of an appointment as a judge in an annual Flavor of Georgia Food Product contest sponsored by the Georgia Department of Agriculture that included 30 finalists among the entrants, who were all local food producers. “From that I made contact with several of those who had very interesting products,” he says. “We need to be competitive with big box stores, so if I can do something different, I like to do that.”
That includes the 14 to 16 different salads that are offered in the store’s deli case on any given day. A couple of them are made by Nadine’s Classic Cuisine, which sends staff into the store a couple of days a week to make salads that have made Nadine Wardenga a two-time finalist in Flavor of Georgia contests as well as the White County (Georgia) Chamber of Commerce’s 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year. “She couldn’t handle the demand of a big box store,” Downing says. “It’s a point of differentiation.”
Today, Downing and his staff have renewed their efforts to source organic produce, which he says has always been a challenge. “You have to have enough variety so the consumer can plan a meal,” Downing observes. Local organic farmers are small-scale operators who sell their produce in farmers markets and to local restaurants, where they get a premium price, partly due to their ability to make direct contact between farmers and buyers. Dogged effort has improved Foothills IGA’s produce supply lines for a whole range of products from potatoes and squash to apples, organic lettuces and organic wines to the point at which the store has been able to negotiate prices that keep organic produce prices at the independent store competitive with the big box grocers.
Foothills IGA is also doing good business in gluten-free products, with about 500 SKUs in store and integrated into the center store shelves. “It’s a growing category for us,” Downing says. “We have all manner of gluten-free items in our store and are constantly looking for more.”
Of course, big-city access to premium products can’t take the place of home-town feeling, and Foothills IGA strives to create that through special events throughout the year that are built around community involvement when the opportunity arises. During football season, the high school band comes out to play in the Foothills IGA parking lot, and hot dog wagon sales help fund the school’s booster club. The winter holiday season is celebrated with a variety of events, and there are other special events throughout the year. “It’s fun to walk out on Saturday morning and hear the band playing,” Downing says. “It helps us to become the community center that we have always strived to be as an IGA operator…. We’re proud to be the Foothills IGA and proud to serve our community, and the community in turn supports us very well.”