Spirit of Rowan 2022: Food Lion started as ‘little bitty’ grocery store in Salisbury

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 27, 2022

SALISBURY — Philanthropist Ronnie Smith says there’s no way his father, Wilson, and fellow Food Lion founders Ralph and Brown Ketner could have known their “little bitty store” in Salisbury would reach the impact it has today.

“They never ever dreamed it would become ‘one of the largest and most successful and fastest-growing grocery store chains in the nation,'” Smith said. “They were thinking, ‘Maybe we’ll have one store. Maybe we’ll have two.'”

The three founders had a history of working in the grocery business. The trio worked in Glenn Ketner’s grocery stores until they were merged with more than a dozen Piggly Wiggly stores across eastern North Carolina and then sold to Winn-Dixie in 1956. The trio used the synergy among them to put up half of the $125,000 needed to start their own grocery chain comparable with the Winn-Dixie chain.

The other half was raised and put up by community members, which included teachers, bankers, doctors, mail carriers and mill workers. Then, on a bitterly cold day in December 1957, they opened the first 15,000-square-foot Food Town store in the west end of Salisbury. A second location was opened a year later to survive the price war among other Salisbury grocery stores.

A decade later, Food Town opened more than a dozen stores and closed or sold nearly 10. But Ketner, who was the company’s president at the time, decided to take a gamble on a new concept that has defined the chain and its culture ever since: offering the lowest food prices in North Carolina.

“I’d rather make five fast pennies than one slow nickel,” Ketner said years after making the successful gamble.

In 1983, the store name was changed to Food Lion in order to expand to states where Food Town already existed. By the early 1990s, the chain grew to 800 stores, exceeding the growth rates of other retail giants such as Walmart and Winn Dixie and placing it among the nation’s top 10 grocery chains. Today, the chain operates more than 1,000 stores across 10 states in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.

In 1974, Belgium-based Delhaize Group acquired Food Lion. In 2016, Delhaize Group and Netherlands-based Ahold merged into Ahold Delhaize, the conglomerate that owns and operates Food Lion today.

But Food Lion’s reach stretches beyond the grocery industry. When one thinks of Food Lion, they can also think about Catawba College and the Rowan Regional Medical Center, Smith says. The Smith Family Foundation, founded by Wilson Smith, contributed millions of dollars to a capital campaign that ended in 2008 to improve the hospital. Additionally, philanthropic families such as the Hurleys have used Food Lion stock to fund campaigns for Catawba College, a private university.

Food Lion’s charitable efforts over recent years have been focused on programs and initiatives tackling food insecurity. Food Lion annually contributes to local charities, such as the Rowan County United Way and Rowan Helping Ministries, and to larger programs like the American Red Cross and the Children’s Miracle Network. Since 2000, it has partnered with Feeding America to reduce food waste and donate hundreds of millions of meals to local communities. The Food Lion Feeds Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2001, has supported more than $10 million in hunger-relief initiatives, primarily targeting at-risk children and feeding agencies.

“And all of that started right here in Salisbury, North Carolina,” Smith said.

About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com or call her at 704-797-4246.

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