Four West Virginia Foodland stores have recently made the franchise switch to Piggly Wiggly, the most recent being the “Bigley Piggly Wiggly” at 10 Spring St., near Bigley Avenue, in Charleston.
The store made the news official at a grand re-opening celebration earlier this month, joining the Kanawha City, Sissonville and Eleanor Piggly Wigglys, which confirmed their jumps to the brand in July 2016.
But the last thing Bigley Piggly Wiggly owner Jeff Joseph wants you to think is that the change means the locations are ditching their local emphasis and storied histories.
“See these baseball teams up here?” Joseph said, pointing to a collection of roster photos of local baseball teams in the Bigley franchise’s management office. “That’s not even a third of them. We got some going back as far as the 1950s. We always support these teams, these churches, these schools.”
The Joseph family’s business presence in West Virginia goes back even further. The store names may have changed a time or two, along with the grocery business itself, but West Virginia’s four new Piggly Wiggly franchises can all trace their lineage back to Ameen Joseph, the grandfather of brothers Jeff Joseph and Rick Joseph, owner of the Kanawha City and Eleanor locations, and grandfather-in-law of Hudson Hamady, the Sissonville location’s owner.
“All of this is the result of our grandparents and parents being the forces that carried these stores to where they are now,” Jeff Joseph said.
Ameen Joseph immigrated from Btater, Lebanon, to the United States in the early 1900s, eventually settling in Eskdale in Kanawha County.
“He comes to a land he knows nothing about, has virtually no money and couldn’t speak the language,” Jeff Joseph said.
He made his living by selling cookware and houseware in a duffel bag and two suitcases full of merchandise, Jeff Joseph said, with the majority of customers being coal miners and their families.
Around 1912, Ameen Joseph saved enough money to open up A. Joseph’s General Store. With coal mines booming, he had plenty of buyers and turned around enough of a profit to even buy a house in Lebanon for his parents.
Three of his sons, Frederick, Joe and Adle, worked at the general store and eventually had the itch to open up their own business with William Hamady, who had married Idell Joseph, Ameen’s daughter, a few years earlier. The four founded the supermarket Big Star in Whitesville in 1950, and immediately set their sights on opening a second location on Spring Street in Charleston.
Getting the Charleston supermarket built and running was easier said than done, however. The group had enough funds to purchase the land, but not enough to build the Big Star and stock it with products. They asked for a loan from the Charleston National Bank, but the bank rejected the idea, Jeff Joseph said.
“The bank president said it will never work, he said, ‘Nobody does $30,000 [in sales] a week but Kroger,” he said. “Knowing my family, they were disappointed but that didn’t stop them. It was a rallying cry.”
The four decided to sell the land they just purchased to a family in Wheeling, and had first right to lease the land, allowing them to save enough in funding to build the supermarket.
“It was a hit from day one,” Jeff Joseph said of the first Big Star opening. “For the first few weeks there was no space in the parking lot. People couldn’t even go down the aisles.”
Big Star expanded to 10 stores total, but “economic pressure and strains” led to the founders’ decision to sell the company in 1984 to Foodland, Jeff Joseph said. The founders were able to run franchises of their own, however, and eventually passed ownership to their sons, who still run the stores today.
“As a child growing up, you don’t realize the sacrifices and progress they made, you don’t realize what my father [Frederick Joseph] went through to keep the store running and what they did was always for a reason,” Jeff Joseph said.
The Foodland name stuck for all the franchises until their agreements expired, which the owners decided not to renew. Jeff Joseph said customers were initially concerned with the Bigley Foodland’s transition to a Piggly Wiggly. But being under Piggly Wiggly’s wing has led to more variety and lower costs, he said.
“It’s been well received since people realized nobody lost their jobs,” he said. “It’s not just changing the name, it’s leading to lower fees and better quality.”
Rick Joseph said customers don’t always understand that the franchises are owned and operated independently, adding that purchasing groceries at a store with local ownership often leads to more money that stays within the community.
“You try to stay up and current with the big competitors,” Rick Joseph said. “But at the same time, you’re a part of the town. You keep up with your neighbors. Your kids go to school here, they play sports here.”
The hope is that Piggly Wiggly will also help the local franchises be more up-to-date on consumer trends and technology, Jeff Joseph said.
“Social media has changed the game immensely, including the way people advertise,” he said.
The Piggly Wiggly is also “looking into” a service where customers would order groceries online and pick them up at the store, Jeff Joseph said, similar to Kroger’s ClickList service offered at some West Virginia locations.
“Now you’ve got companies able to get something you order online to you in a matter of hours,” Jeff Joseph said. “It’s tough. You have to give them a reason to come into your store and you have to keep up with what’s going on.”
Jeff Joseph, Rick Joseph and Hudson Hamady all agreed they would like to keep their Piggly Wiggly franchises within the family. But Hamady, whose son is an assistant manager at his franchise, said that it may depend on the business climate if those transitions will actually occur.
“It’s up to the next generation to find out how much interest they have in it,” Hamady said. “If the environment going forward continues to support local business, then it can happen.”
Reach Max Garland at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-4886 or follow @MaxGarlandTypes on Twitter.