Sometimes It Takes a Community to Run a Store
Where a Community Gathers Red Bay Grocery is a business reborn on the road less traveled — thanks to its customers and community By Scott Jackson Originally published in the June/July 2010 issue of 850 Magazine
Small, rural communities dot the Northwest Florida landscape, their iconic “mom and pop” grocery stores reflecting the area’s bucolic character. Though increasingly rare, such stores, which often feature a single gas pump, sun-faded signs, basic products and homegrown food, can still be found, their survival owing to the warmth, diligence and grit of their owners. Before the advent of cell phones and social media, such stores were the gathering spot for sharing news about everyday life.
For decades, most of these small communities depended solely upon agriculture and a handful of services to provide an economic lifeline. But as residents searching for job opportunities began moving elsewhere and large retail chains began moving in, many small stores were closed and abandoned. Red Bay Grocery in eastern Walton County was one of those — but with a new sense of purpose and widespread community support, the store now is recapturing its social and entrepreneurial spirit.
Neither Red Nor Bay
It would be easy to miss Red Bay Grocery, if not the town of Red Bay itself. The store is located on State Road 81, one of the primary feeder routes to Interstate 10 from the coast. Giant, moss-draped oak trees line either side of the winding highway, and the scenic drive is filled with pastoral scenery.
Red Bay is a peaceful, close-knit community; the town’s largest roadside sign directs people to three local churches. However, because of its small population, the town can’t support all three, so residents rotate services every Sunday between the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches.
“We are known as Metho-Bap-Terians,” said longtime resident Ouida Miller.
The smallness of the town contributed to the closing of the local grocery two years ago — yet it was also a contributing factor in the rebirth of the business.
Opened in 1936, Red Bay Grocery had 28 owners before closing in 2008, shuttering the only local gathering spot and forcing locals to drive 20 miles for bare necessities. It was a tough blow for the town’s 100 or so residents.
“When the store closed, this community lost a big part of what it takes to make a community,” said Charles Morgan, a resident of Destin for 34 years and owner of Harbor Docks Restaurant. Morgan has owned a horse ranch in Red Bay for the past 10 years.
“We needed to do something,” he said.
Seeds of a Plan
One day, while riding their horses past the shuttered building, Morgan and business partner Katie Barrineau discussed the idea of reopening the store.
“We talked about bringing in locally produced food and recipes and making everybody in the community a part of it,” Barrineau said.
Morgan observed that several food-related trends could help bolster the project.
“In recent years, the culinary trend in our country has been toward artisanal foods produced in traditional, handcrafted ways,” he said. “Additionally, there is the locavore movement — foods produced close to home — along with the slow food movement, which advocates taking the time to cook fresh, non-processed foods.”
Morgan felt that this type of eating was a natural for the town.
“The folks here in Red Bay didn’t need a bunch of hippies to tell them about the value of growing foods locally,” he said. “They have been doing that for 200 years.”
The Community Buys In
“We had a meeting at the community center and all decided that we would like to reopen the store,” Morgan said. “We didn’t want to run it like it had been for 70 years. If 28 people couldn’t run it (separately), why don’t we try and run this together? Maybe we would have a better shot at it.”
On Jan. 5, 2009, residents gathered at the Red Bay Community Center and decided to do just that. After hearing Morgan’s proposal for establishing a partnership of 50 shareholders who would each invest $1,000, the community bought into the dream.
“They just fell right in with it,” said Ouida Miller, one of the shareholders. “There was no quibbling or anything about it — everybody just wanted the store.”
Morgan told them it would have to be run like a business.
“I told them this is not some hippie commune-type deal; this is a business, and we are going to make money,” he said.
He sweetened the proposal by allowing investors to sell their shares back after a year if they weren’t happy — and he promised to personally handle cash shortfalls until the store got on its feet.
All available shares were sold within 48 hours. There are now 64 shareholders in the store, according to Morgan. In order to make decisions quicker during the renovation and reopening, Morgan was originally a 51-percent owner.
Because of Red Bay’s rural isolation, the shareholders had to rely on one another.
“This place is surprisingly in the middle of nowhere for the state of Florida,” Morgan said. “We are 20 miles from Freeport and DeFuniak Springs. We have a lawyer, a carpenter, a plumber, an electrician, farmers and chefs. But most importantly, we have wonderful people in this community.”
Barrineau is the store’s manager. When she calls for assistance from one of the shareholders, he or she comes quickly.
“I know where you live; I know how to get you if I need you,” she playfully said to one of the shareholders leaving the store during a recent visit.
Barrineau, who grew up in Fort Walton Beach, first started working for Morgan at Harbor Docks when she was 15 years old before heading to Atlanta.
“I was doing private events planning for a restaurant group in Atlanta,” she said. “I loved the company but wanted to get back close to family and slow down some. I begged Charles for the job.”
In reopening Red Bay Grocery, Morgan realized that bringing in food produced locally by some of the shareholders would assist them in getting their products to market sooner.
“There has been a barrier for some time between growers and the marketplace,” he said. “Many producers are skilled at what they do, but growing produce and selling produce are two different things. Tomato growers in Walton County have always had to deal with the normal obstacles farmers face. Now they have to compete against imported produce from other countries.”
To help get some of the products to market, Morgan has made arrangements with a company to bottle various sauces, jellies and jams.
“We know that of $100 spent in a local area, $45 stays in the community,” he said. “Money spent at a Wal-Mart ends up in Bentonville, Ark., within 24 hours. Corporate-owned chain stores have long been the bane of business communities. Locally owned restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and retail shops have almost become a thing of the past.”
The Grocery Returns
It wasn’t an easy path to the store’s eventual opening on Feb. 28, 2009. The permitting and regulatory process is tough, no matter how big or small a business is.
“We had to go through nine government agencies to get this store opened,” Morgan said. “We are on well water, and we pay more to get our water tested every month than we do on our rent.”
The challenges of dealing with state and local agencies, as well as working with 64 shareholders, are formidable. But the work is paying off, and others are taking note. Morgan said the communities of Lake City in Columbia County and Laurel Hill in Okaloosa County have expressed an interest in the business concept and have visited the store several times.
“If this becomes sort of a template for small communities to regain their economic destiny, well, that’s great,” he said.
Although the store motif generally reflects its early years, it does have one concession to modern-day technology — wireless Internet access. Otherwise, the Red Bay Grocery carries just the basic needs and homegrown delights, as it has for more than 70 years.
“We are carrying our own baked goods and fresh produce, along with family recipes that have been around for generations,” Barrineau said. “Definitely not the type of food you would expect along the side of the road when you haven’t seen anything commercially for 20 miles.
“The food that comes out of our kitchen is homemade, and we can keep the costs low so the people around us in the area can afford to eat it,” she added. “I would definitely prefer to eat a tomato that was from here rather than one that was from Mexico. I know exactly where it is coming from, and I know it is supporting Luke Langford and his family and farm that they have had in the family for three generations. And that is what is important right now.”
Location, Location, Location
Red Bay’s primary roadway, State Road 81, wasn’t paved until the 1940s to link the town with Bruce to the south and Ponce de Leon to the north. Although it remains off the beaten path, Morgan is optimistic about capturing traffic to and from the coast.
“We are on a tourist route and hope to get some of their money as they pass through,” he said, while also noting the volume of cyclists and bikers who are drawn to the roads that wind through the hills in the countryside. “Last Saturday and Sunday, there were probably 100 bikers and bicyclists come through here.”
Even though an occasional celebrity will drop in the Red Bay Grocery, the warm, folksy charm doesn’t waver — everyone is welcome.
According to Morgan, Destin resident and Fox News Channel pundit Wayne Rogers stopped in one day for coffee on his way to Tallahassee. After he left, a local deputy dropped by; when told that Rogers had been there, he wondered, “What was Wayne Rogers doing in here?” One of the shareholders, Ramon McDonald, casually replied that “he just came by to have a cup of coffee and chat for a little bit.”
Now down from a 51-percent to a 36-percent shareholder, Morgan has not had to refund anybody’s share, a tribute to the community’s commitment to the business plan.
“This is sort of a forgotten group of people, forgotten area and forgotten way of living,” he said. “We have provided a place for this community to come together and show off what we are good at.”