Meet Charlie Modica, Seaside's Anchor
Seaside’s Anchor Charlie Modica met his competition head-on, shifting focus and giving his customers a unique experience By John Van Gieson Originally published in the June/July 2010 issue of 850 Magazine
Charles J. Modica Jr. may be the most recognizable person in Seaside, the tony resort community located on the beach in southern Walton County. As the proprietor of Modica Market, the specialty store in the middle of town, he has become the face of Seaside for thousands of people who visit the resort each year and know him as just “Charlie.”
Tall, friendly and personable, with black hair streaked by gray, Modica, 47, has a warm greeting for everyone who walks into the market, using a down-home and relaxed style that has helped grow his fan base and keeps customers coming back. Many of them are now old friends, always anxious to update him on family news.
“I’d say thousands of people are in our network,” Modica said. “That’s been such a blessing, having run across that many good people.”
He jokes that college football’s Southeastern Conference is his customer base, especially visitors from Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. Many are football fans as loyal to their team as Modica is to the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, and Saturday games are a major topic of conversation in the fall.
While Modica was being interviewed last fall at one of the tables on the sidewalk outside the market, numerous residents and guests stopped to say hello. Modica asked one man about his son, a placekicker on the Furman University football team, which was about to play Auburn. They laughed about Furman’s chances of winning the game. (Furman lost, 63-31.)
Modica Market is a family-owned business that opened in 1989 after Modica’s father, Charles Modica Sr., and mother, Sarah Modica, moved south from Bessemer, Ala., where they had run a grocery store.
Seaside was in the early stages of development then, and the Modicas decided to buy a lot and then built a house there. They struck up a friendship with Seaside developer Robert Davis, who asked them to operate the market, which Davis envisioned would become an anchor for Seaside. Davis and the Modicas sealed the deal with a handshake.
“Robert had the vision of having this store here as part of his master plan,” Charlie Modica said. “It was built so that if people were down here, they would feel comfortable knowing there were goods here that they could get to sustain themselves while they were on vacation. Robert wanted to have a neighborhood store that, if you needed something, you could make multiple trips, and it was a way to meet people and greet people.”
Charles Modica Sr., who retired four years ago, and his son agreed to take over the market.
“I have had the honor and privilege of working next to my parents the majority of my adult life,” Charlie Modica said. Actually, he still does. His father shows up once in a while to wait on customers, and he continues to paint the colorful posters displayed in the windows and on the walls of the market to promote the goodies that are for sale.
Modica Market, which became a backdrop for the 1998 movie “The Truman Show,” is an upscale specialty store that sells products ranging from wine to sandwiches, from salads and pasta entrées prepared on the premises to delectable cakes and pies made by a baker in Mississippi. The store also is a favorite place for guests of Seaside and nearby resorts to get that morning cup of joe and a muffin to go with it. It has been highlighted on CNN’s “On the Menu” on several occasions and featured in hundreds of articles in magazines including Vogue, Travel & Leisure, TravelSouth and Condé Nast Traveler.
Modica said he had to change the way he did business at the market when Publix opened the first supermarket in the area within a mile of Seaside in 2003.
“When you see a decrease in revenue and realize that people can get staples at any grocery store, you know you have to change your store as far as finding new and unusual products,” he said.
In shifting focus, Modica turned the market into a specialty store featuring high-quality, exclusive products that, in many cases, are unique to the area. He markets it as “A Gourmet Grocery with Southern Hospitality.” You can still buy eggs, toothpaste, lightbulbs and batteries, but Modica said he visits several “fancy food shows” a year to find new products to sell. As a result, hundreds of items line shelves that stretch from floor to ceiling, 10 feet up.
“There are fancy food shows across the country where new products are introduced into the marketplace,” Modica said. “You spend a couple of days going to them and looking to see what suits your business and clientele best. There are a lot of European products, and the manufacturers offer incentives to sell their products.”
He has learned to tailor what he sells to the wants of the customers who frequent the store.
To accommodate them, Modica Market stocks the finest wines from the United States, France, Italy, Germany and other acclaimed wine regions; gourmet, single-source chocolates; and specialty products that include a 24-year-old balsamic vinaigrette. The market also sells its own brand of pasta sauce.
Modica said he never doubted the change would work.
“People are more interested in high quality, the best of the best,” he said. “People are more educated, and they know what they want.”
Advice to other business owners: Personally working your business is your business — relating to your customers; keeping an eye on details, what’s happening in your store; keeping your communications lines open with your employees; and having the store run the way you want it to be, not how somebody else wants it to be.
Customer relations: I think if you listen to your customers and take care of your customers, treat them like family members, you will be successful. If I had a mission statement, that’s what it would be.
Celebrity customers: We see a lot of celebrities. It’s a lot of songwriters, a lot of professional athletes – I’m not going to give names. Actors and actresses will show up. For me, it’s exciting that these people who have the means to travel anywhere they want to find Seaside a very hospitable and beautiful place to vacation, and being part of it for all of our customers is an honor for me.
Recharge: I love to go saltwater fly-fishing in the bay and the Gulf. I’ve been as far away as the Bahamas and Mexico. I fish for tarpon and redfish. Being on the water is therapeutic for me. You step back and take a break, and it freshens your ideas.