By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Ron Weeks, general manager of Food Outlet, the new grocery slated to open Oct. 24 in the old Food Lion building on Highway 136 West, says Dade County may need a while to adjust to his store’s cost-plus concept.
“Sometimes when we move in, we’re the first one in the area and it takes a little bit of explaining,” he said. “But when you come in here and buy $100 worth of groceries and have more in your buggy than what you can go down the street and buy for $100, we feel like that’s a benefit to the customer.”
It was one sunny morning last week, and amid the sounds of hammers and electric drills, Weeks had taken a few minutes off from knocking his store into shape to explain the concept to the Sentinel.
“We are a cost-plus-10-percent grocery,” he said. “The bread man who was just here, when he brings in a loaf of bread, if he sells it to me for $1.25, it’ll be on the shelf for $1.25, and when you check out, it adds 10 percent at the register.”
But besides the quirk of the markup being added at the cash register, rather than figured in before pricing, Weeks said Food Outlet will not look that different from what customers are used to. “We will be a traditional grocery store. We’re going to have pretty much anything you need,” he said. “We want customers to feel free to come in and, if there’s something they’re looking for that we don’t carry, to let us know and we’ll get it in here for them.”
Despite its discount approach, Food Outlet is not a warehouse-type store that specializes in bulk and canned goods. On the contrary, said Weeks, it has built a reputation on its fresh food. “We’re going to have a great meat department and a lot of really good prices on meat. That’s something we really specialize in,” he said.
And Weeks said that unlike its competitors, when the Dade County Food Outlet says “local produce,” it really means “local produce” – as in from Dade County, not South Carolina or Florida. He wants to get the word out to area growers that he’s in the market for their fruits and vegetables. “Mostly it’s been watermelons in other places, collard greens, but whatever they grow around here, we want to buy,” he said.
He said that Food Outlet leaves produce purchasing up to the individual store managers, but in general the chain has met with great success buying locally. “We feel like we get a lot better deals on a lot fresher produce when we do it that way,” he said. “The freshness really counts. It hasn’t been trucked across two states and sat in a hot truck if we get it locally.”
Weeks said Food Outlet is also looking for employees, between 40 and 50, in fact, about half of them full-time. He and one other manager will be the only ones relocated from other locations. “Everyone else will be hired locally,” said Weeks.
The Dade County Chamber of Commerce and Georgia Department of Labor will hold a job fair this Thursday in the Commission Room of the Dade Administrative Building from 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. to recruit Food Outlet employees, and Weeks was interviewing an applicant as the Sentinel interviewed Weeks.
Food Outlet is a small, independently-owned chain founded about 15 years ago by brothers Mark and Robbie Norman, said Weeks. The Trenton store will be only its seventh store, and its first in Georgia. The chain started in Montgomery, Ala., where it now has three stores. There are also two Food Outlets in Thomasville, Ala., and one in Waynesboro, Miss.
Food Outlet decided to move into this area because of the opportunity offered when Food Lion pulled out, said Weeks, but at least in the beginning it will stick with the one store. “We’re focused on Trenton,” he said. “We’re going to get Trenton up and running and make sure everything is going well here, and other opportunities we’ll look at as they come.”
Weeks said Food Outlet can manage with its modest 10 percent markup because it has kept things small and simple. “Our other local stores have done really well with large competitors next door like Bi-Lo and Ingle’s,” he said. “Honestly, we’re just here to sell groceries. We don’t have a lot of corporate bureaucracy and a lot of district officers that we have to pay salaries to.”
But one area where the new grocer won’t compete with the bigger chains is in alcohol and tobacco sales, which none of the Food Outlets carry, said Weeks. “The owners are very much committed to that and just refuse to carry it,” he said.
Weeks himself, originally from Macon, was an assistant Food Outlet manager in the Montgomery area before being assigned the new Trenton store. He and his wife, Cindy, who have two little girls, aged 6 and 8, have already bought a house here. “We’re here for the long haul,” said Weeks.
He said he’s thrilled to be in Dade County. “No other store can you walk out of and have that kind of view like you have out there, looking out at the mountain,” he said.