Food Lion’s ‘solution’ may lie in its past philosophy

  • Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2012 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, December 17, 2012 5:36 p.m.
Salisbury Post Archives
Wilson Smith (left) and Ralph Ketner pose in front of the first Food Town store in the Ketner Center in this 1971 photo. Along with Brown Ketner, they co-founded the Salisbury-based chain that became part of the Delhaize group.
Salisbury Post Archives Wilson Smith (left) and Ralph Ketner pose in front of the first Food Town store in the Ketner Center in this 1971 photo. Along with Brown Ketner, they co-founded the Salisbury-based chain that became part of the Delhaize group.

With reference to the Salisbury Post front-page article of Saturday, Dec. 8 — “Will changes at top of Food Lion be solution?” — I would like to offer a response on behalf of many of the original employees of Food Town and Food Lion.

Please understand that we certainly don’t claim to have the insight to offer a fool-proof or guarantee solution. And we definitely don’t have a crystal ball to answer all the many questions or accurately predict the future of Food Lion. However, we may have some suggestions and ideas worthy of consideration.

First, let’s start with the facts. Food Lion, formerly known as Food Town in its infancy, has earned a reputation as one of the largest, fastest-growing and most respected grocery chains in the entire supermarket industry. Salisbury is extremely fortunate to claim Food Lion as a home-based company with its headquarters, original stores and major distribution centers located here in Rowan County.

For more than 55 years, Food Lion has always played, and continues to play, a major role in supporting and investing in our community and especially in the economy of Rowan County and North Carolina. Today, Food Lion still employs thousands of workers in our immediate area and has contributed many millions of dollars to deserving and worthwhile causes throughout our region. Much of the growth and success of Salisbury and Rowan County can be attributed directly to Food Lion and Food Lion stockholders.

We also recognize that change is inevitable, but under the right circumstances, change can be a very good thing. That being said, we must respectfully take exception to the comments of the grocery analyst from Milwaukee who described Food Lion as a “dinosaur” and “middle-of-the-road” grocery chain that can no longer compete.

How many Rowan County citizens remember the supermarket wars of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s? That was the beginning of LFPINC (Lowest Food Pricees in North Carolina) and the spark that ignited a fire under Food Town. Competition was fierce. A loaf of bread sold for 5 cents and a six-bottle carton of soft drinks for only 19 cents. Many of us describe that period today as the “good ole days,” but it was a recent as only 25-30 years ago.

And who remembers some of the major supermarket chains in our community competing for the almighty grocery dollar? Winn-Dixie, A&P, Colonial, Food World, Three Guys, Kroger, Big Star and several smaller chains come to mind, just to name a few. Where are they today? It’s not coincidence or simply good fortune that allowed Food Lion to not only survive but also to thrive and grow to become one of the largest supermarket chains in the entire nation.

What made Food Town and Food Lion so successful? We think the answer may be fairly simple. There’s no question that low prices and advertising were important factors, but any grocery store can reduce its prices or spend thousands in marketing and advertising dollars.

We feel Food Lion’s success was largely due to the culture of the company and the strong work ethic created by many of those original employees and co-founders Ralph Ketner and Wilson Smith. It was the philosophy of Food Town to always put the customers and employees first. Employees were treated with dignity and respect, and the company’s “customer first” attitude was instilled in every aspect of Food Town’s operation. “When we save, you save” became a slogan for employees and in the company’s advertising. Customer loyalty soared. Many grocery shoppers started calling Food Town “my store.” The company had a read challenge just trying to keep up with the growth customers demanded in other communities throughout the state and, later, the Southeast.

As many of us recall, Delhaize “Le Lion,” a Belgium-based supermarket chain, soon entered the picture. Delhaize provided Food Town with the investment and capital to sustain its growth and rapid expansion program. Food Town, now Food Lion with the Belgian Lion logo, saw its sales, profits and stock prices climb to new highs.

Now, Delhaize has been in charge of operations for many years. There is no question Delhaize is a quality company and has brought in many new ideas to Food Lion. They have also replaced many Food Town employees and moved in many top executives and management employees from Hannaford Supermarkets in Maine and from other parts of the country. What they were not able to bring in was the culture, the energy, the enthusiasm and the work ethic of many of those original employees in the early days of the company. Today, Food Lion has many outstanding employees who remain very loyal to the company and our customers. Gone, however, are the dreams of the company’s founders, their examples of hard work and dedication and their desire to make Food Lion the absolute best it can be.

Maybe the solution we are all seeking for Food Lion is right under our noses. Implementing that solution is now the challenge for Food Lion’s new management and for Delhaize America. Good enough never is and never will be. We just want to be the best!

With that attitude and a few history lessons, Food Lion will always be a winner! It is our hope and prayer that Food Lion can once again become the company that many of us have known and supported since its humble beginning in 1957.

Ronald (Ronnie) Smith is the son of Food Town co-founder Wilson L. Smith. He is a 55-year veteran of Food Town and Food Lion. He previously served as director of personnel, president of the Food Lion Credit Association and president of the Lion’s Pride Foundation.

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