Attracting “A-List” Shoppers

In Little Rock, those in-the-know know Terry’s Finer Foods.

By Richard Turcsik

Looking for the su­per­­market version of Cheers? Drop in at Terry’s Finer Foods in Little Rock, Ark.—a quaint, quirky, cozy little place where everybody knows your name. No small feat when you take a look at Terry’s shoppers. It’s a veritable Little Rock Who’s Who.

The Governor’s Mansion maintains a house charge account, as do many state and local government officials. Terry’s database includes at least a half dozen surnames of Stephens—as in the Stephens, Inc. financial services firm with a skyscraper that towers over downtown. Ditto when it comes to the Dillard family, whose name adorns almost 300 department stores. Dozens of the city’s most prominent doctors and lawyers are Terry’s regulars and recommend the store to their new clients. P. Allen Smith, the Little Rock-based celebrity gardener and lifestyle expert, and his staff are die-hard Terry’s shoppers, and the chefs at the Capital and Peabody hotels regularly turn to Terry’s for hard-to-find gourmet items.

This roster is all the more impressive given that Terry’s only has five aisles, two checkouts, admittedly high prices, doesn’t advertise, run specials or stay open past 6 p.m., and is closed on Sunday and all major holidays.

Yet the 5,000-square-foot Terry’s is more than holding its own against the massive Kroger two blocks down Kavanaugh Boul­evard, said to be the most profitable Kroger in the state. A remodel completed in May by Terry’s new owner added a white tablecloth French bistro-style restaurant to the right side of the store. It’s become so popular that tables are set up nightly in the middle of the grocery aisles to handle the crowds.

“I love shopping at Terry’s,” gushes Mimi S. San Pedro, chief operating and marketing officer at Hortus, Ltd., P. Allen Smith’s holding company, and admittedly “not an adventurous shopper.” San Pedro knows Terry’s prices are noticeably higher than Kroger’s. “It doesn’t matter. Shopping there just feels good,” she says. “Whatever I want they will get it for me. Who cares if I have to pay $10 more for my groceries?”

That feeling is held by most Terry’s shoppers.

“Terry’s has been more or less ‘The Customer Store,’ and they will pretty much tell you that,” says Jim “Bubba” Justice, who has been Terry’s manager for years and literally knows every shopper by name. “At the chain stores the employees have so much to do that the customer is an inconvenience. Well, we try to put the customer first. Sometimes that’s difficult with some of the things we have to do, but we are able to maintain that core support of the customers. It is important to Terry’s, and we understand where you get your paycheck from.”

That paycheck comes from customers spanning generations and Justice and his staff will go out of their way to make them happy. Several customers escape Little Rock’s oppressive summer heat by vacationing in Michigan and Justice will regularly FedEx them groceries. “I sent a box of Arkansas tomatoes to one just a couple of weeks ago,” he says. “The case of tomatoes was maybe $40 and it cost me $120 to ship it.” The charges were added to the customer’s tab.

Terry’s has been operating in the section of Little Rock filled with elegant brick mansions known as The Heights since before the Great Depression. Founded by a Mr. Terry, the store was originally across the street, but in the 1940s moved to the “much larger” location that once housed a Black & White food store and Otasco, sort of like a Woolworth’s with auto supplies. Terry’s was eventually purchased by Gene Lewellen, who operated it for 46 years.

Changing of the guard

In 2008, Lewellen sold Terry’s to one of his customers, Lex Golden. He’s a wealthy local businessman who owns Allied Bank, along with an antique store and some other businesses. A self-described Fran­cophile, Golden decided to open a French bistro at Terry’s. He hired Patrick Herron, a friend of his son Alex, to be executive chef and flew Herron and Justice to Paris for a week to be immersed in French culture.

When they returned, work began on building the restaurant, housed in what was once a carport where Otasco employees did simple auto repairs, and remodeling the store. Justice wanted to close for a week or two during the remodel, but Golden refused. He concedes it was the right decision. “I said I wanted a new floor first, so Mr. Golden let me put in a new floor. They’d come in at night and put down a quarter of the floor,” Justice says. “What that did was stir interest in the community. Customers would come in and say ‘What have you done? This looks great! What are you going to do tomorrow?’”

Justice kept a few old standards. “These overhead aisle markers have been here forever,” he says. “A lot of people said ‘don’t change that sign!’”

He also held onto the curved grocery gondola in the back corner adjacent to the meat case that artfully displays canned vegetables. “At one time companies like Del Monte would come into the store and build gondolas,” Justice explains. “This gondola is wood and all handmade.”

Because of its small size, Terry’s offers an edited selection compared to Kroger. “I try to carry national name brand products, like Del Monte and Dole. I don’t handle a generic product or store brand or warehouse brand if I can keep from doing it,” Justice says. “My customers want quality, so I try to stick to mainstays. You don’t find corn dogs here and you don’t find fish sticks.”

With the remodel Justice took out 20 doors of frozen food, and replaced it with a cheese island and more specialty groceries. “I took them out because basically my customers didn’t buy that much frozen food,” he says. “I did carry the full line of Stouffer’s, which was a good-selling frozen product, but I was watching my sales and couldn’t justify such a large department.”

That’s also the case with baby care. When a visitor points out that the three SKUs of Gerber jars sitting on the shelf is a rather limited assortment, Justice says, “Actually I got this in by mistake. In baby food, the only thing I would carry was the beef, chicken and meat varieties and these people here would feed it to their dogs. And because there are so many different sizes of diapers, I don’t have the room so I just don’t carry them. Over at Walmart that would all be so much cheaper.”

Competing with the clubs

It’s the same with the membership clubs. “Our customers still trade at Kroger; they are not 100% loyal to Terry’s. Some of them may even go so far as going out to Sam’s to buy bulk stuff, but they don’t do that very often,” Justice says. “They’d rather have me go to Sam’s and get it for them and bring it here and sell it for a profit.” He points to a bin filled with sleeves of 20-ounce Styrofoam cups. His customers requested them, but Justice was only able to find branded cups in the 16-ounce size. “A case of them in Sam’s has about 20 sleeves and sells for about 12 bucks. I sell them for $3.00 a sleeve and I can’t keep them in the store! Every time I go out west, which is a good ways from here, I stop by Sam’s and pick up a couple of cases. Our customers are regulars and it doesn’t hurt to get somebody what they want. And they’ll pay you for it.”

They’ll also pay for gourmet and imported items.  Following up on a customer request, a clerk asks Justice if there is any more of some fancy French mayonnaise in a tube in stock. “No, I’ll have to special order that,” he says, adding, “Mr. Golden has an import license and brings back cases of French food when he visits Paris.”

Terry’s may only stock one brand and size of ketchup, but it has dozens of flavored specialty oils, fancy jams and other gourmet products. “The chef at the Peabody Hotel just called us and I got him a couple of cases of red currant jelly,” Justice says. “He needed it for some recipe he was creating and they just couldn’t find it anywhere. It’s the same thing with the chef at the Capital Hotel. Whenever they need some special ingredients they call us.”

In addition to fancy imports, Justice also tries to stock as many local products as possible. One display is filled with Robbi’s Salsa from North Little Rock across the river. “It’s a very fresh salsa made by a local guy,” Justice says. “I try to support local stuff. Whenever I can throughout the store I try to buy things that are local, and most of the time it is a much better product.”

Terry’s also specializes in local produce and has arrangements with several local farms to stock tomatoes, peaches, lima beans, peas and quart containers of figs and muscadines, a ping-pong ball sized fruit similar to a grape. “In produce we try to go local where we can,” Justice says.

Display the meat case

That’s also true in meat, where heritage chickens from Falling Sky Farm in Marshall, Ark. are featured along with local pork and house-made sausages. All meat is cut to order. “Our meat counter is a display case, so to speak,” Justice says. “There are some people who will say they want this fillet or that fillet out of the case, but everything is cut-to-order. Meat is our biggest department sales wise because it is the backbone of our business.”

Seafood is merchandised from an adjacent case and has skyrocketed in popularity. “We added seafood six or seven years ago and sold it for three days a week, for the weekend. It became so popular that we started shipping it in from Seattle and Hawaii and now we get three deliveries a week,” Justice says.

In the small deli case Terry’s stocks Boar’s Head and the local Petit Jean bologna and ham, plus an Iberico Bayonne ham imported from Spain. “This ham is $34 an ounce and cost me $1,500.00,” Justice says. “It’s definitely unique for Arkansas and we will use the whole thing.

Chef Herron will use the Iberico ham in some of his restaurant dishes. “We shop out of the store,” he explains. “We have the world’s biggest pantry. We can never be out of anything.”

Herron purchases his ingredients in the store at full retail, minus the sales tax. Price wise his menu is moderate to upscale. A Caesar salad is $5.75, while the Dover Sole Meuniere will set you back $36.

Dine among the detergents

The restaurant is open for dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and in September began opening for lunch. “We tell our customers that they can get anything in the restaurant that they can get in the store. It’s funny because we’ll get people who will say they need a gallon of milk. The store is closed, but we can still get it and put it on their tab,” Herron says.

Terry’s seats 38 in the restaurant proper and probably another 40 in the supermarket area of the store. On average, the table turn over rate is about twice a night. “One of our most requested aisles is between Tide and the dog food,” Herron says.

“What we do is turn out our overhead lights and turn on track lighting spotlights,” Justice explains. “We put tables at the back of the aisles and I have wooden display racks up front on coasters that we decorate with gourmet items and push in to block the aisle. There may be dog food and insecticides on the aisle, but at least the diners have something pretty to look at.”

“And this is really quieter,” Herron says. “In the Bistro everybody is sitting tight together; in the supermarket it is almost like a booth.”

Herron hopes to grow restaurant sales further through prix fixe theme dinners. When the restaurant opened Golden flew in noted French chef Bruno Doucet from Paris. “He brought him over to do three meals and we sold out at $125 a plate,” he says.

It was so successful that theme dinners will likely become a Terry’s staple. “We were testing the waters with [Chef Doucet],” Herron says. “We can do a lot of different themes. Wine dinners will probably be the next thing. Our problem is we don’t have a slow night where we can say ‘let’s do a wine dinner on Tuesday.’ That would probably make somebody mad because we do have our Tuesday regulars.”

No sale

And the management at Terry’s goes out of its way not to upset its customers. That’s why you’ll never find a sale. “When I would do a promotion or run an ad or put a ‘sale’ sticker on something out here, it was like the kiss of death. Our customers would think something was wrong and question why it was one sale so I don’t advertise,” Justice says.

“I’m not known for having the cheap price, but I am known for having the better quality product,” Justice says. The Dillard, Stephens and hundreds of other Little Rock families agree.

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