Spirit of Rowan 2023: Food Lion’s reach goes further than just good deals

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 26, 2023

SALISBURY- Ronnie Smith knows Food Lion like the back of his hand. As he should – his father co-founded it nearly 70 years ago.

“Truthfully, I’ve been with the company 66 years. I started when I was 11 years-old. That was in 1957 when we opened our first Food Town store and I was too young to earn a salary. So my dad who, with Mr. Ketner, started the company, put me to work shining apples and I didn’t get paid,” Smith said.

In 1957, Ralph and Brown Ketner along with Wilson Smith, Ronnie’s father, worked for Winn-Dixie in Salisbury. They were told they were moving their headquarters to Raleigh, but they all decided they didn’t want to move. There was a building with space for a grocery store and they decided to start their own business.

The only problem was that they didn’t have enough capital to get everything off the ground. In total, they had $60,000 to $65,000, but needed $125,000. In order to get the rest of the money, they reached out to everyone they knew in the area for help.

“They decided, ‘Well, let’s issue stock in the company.’ The company didn’t even exist, it was brand new,” Smith said. They were selling shares in their company at $10 each. Most people laughed at them and said, ‘No, we’re not interested.’ But they found enough people to raise the total $125,000. They did it.”

Later, Food Town was bought by a company from Brussels, the DelHaize Group. They wanted to expand beyond the state of North Carolina, but had a problem and also a solution.

“When that happened, we could not move into other states out of North Carolina because there was a Food Town in Memphis, Tennessee, there was a Food Town in another state and we were not able to use the name Food Town. So, we said, ‘Ok, the logo for the DelHaize company was a lion…and we changed our name from Food Town to Food Lion…We only had to change two letters and that saved the company millions of dollars in signage,” Smith said.

DelHaize invested $7 million for 49 percent shares of Food Town. When that happened, things really got going.

“The stock that the few investors had purchased back in 1957 took off like a rocket…A stockholder that bought as little as $500 worth of stock way back when became millionaires,” Smith said.”It lit a fire under this community and the stockholders got real excited. They would go to The Salisbury Post everyday and read the stock. The stock would start going up, up, up, up.”

Most of the money that the original stockholders had was invested it back into the community once they died. Catawba College, Novant Health, Rowan Helping Ministries, churches, foundations, all received money from the original investors in Food Lion.

“So without that, this community probably would have not been able to grow and prosper like it’s done. For that reason, I think people still look at Food Lion and say, ‘Thank god it started right here in Salisbury, North Carolina,'” Smith said.

Smith is still involved with Food Lion to this day, working with Food Lion Credit Union and Food Lion Foundation. Smith says his father’s work ethic was “ingrained” in him and that perseverance has been rewarded.

“If I worked with you in the office or the store I felt like you were part my my family…The sacrifices that were made in the early, early days really paid off later on in the company,” Smith said.

Food Lion is still driven to serve its community. Joey Williams is the Director of Operations of Food Lion in Salisbury/Rowan County. He has been with the company for over 40 years and oversees 23 stores. He describes all the ways Food Lion, not just as a company but as employees, have assisted in giving back in anyway they can.

“For me and my team, we volunteer whenever needed at Rowan Helping Ministries and what we try to do is when they have a need we send folks, volunteers to help prepare and to feed folks in the community in need,” Williams said.

Food Lion supports the food pantry at Livingstone College and partners with Rowan Vocational Opportunities. Last year they donated $1 million for Second Harvest Food Bank and $125,000 to the non-profit Partners in Learning to build teaching kitchens.

“We do this because we truly believe that we are the communities that we serve. Our associates obviously live here and work in the towns and cities we serve and that is especially true here in Salisbury,” Williams said.

Food Lion hasn’t forgotten what it takes to be a success like it was back in the day. Low prices were a huge factor in their expansion and even though there is more local competition to deal with, Food Lion folks are not worried because the company retains the same values that it used to.

“Price is what made Food Lion and being there for our customers. We continually do everything we can to save where we can so we can reinvest in price to keep prices down. We know by doing that we keep our prices lower than our competition in most cases,” Williams said.

Food Lion isn’t afraid to adapt to how customers or the county think. “We’re going to change when our customers tell us to change. We’re trying to keep our stores updated and we’re going to keep our prices down,” Williams said.

Food Lion was founded in Rowan County and is responsible for innumerable jobs and programs that have helped it during good times and bad.