By Donna Cornelius
Loyal customers of Mountain Brook’s Western Market will see some new faces when the company opens its brand-new store in Lane Parke next week.
But that’s not because workers at the old store in the Mountain Brook Shopping Center are being replaced.
“All of our old employees will be here,” said Darwin Metcalf, Western’s president and chief operating officer. “We’ve got some employees who have been with us more than 40 years. But we’ll have some new employees, too, because we’ve got a larger store now.”
Western’s new home has 28,000 square feet – 7,000 more than the former location. It’s also got expanded departments, enough space for 1,000 new grocery items, a huge wine and beer room, and an upstairs.
The store’s grand opening is set for Oct. 13, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 9 a.m. The store manager is Dale Smith, who has been with the company for more than 30 years.
Metcalf said Western has had a store in the Mountain Brook Shopping Center for 54 years. When company officials learned the center would be torn down to make way for Lane Parke, a luxury mixed-use apartment in Mountain Brook Village, there was never any question that Western would remain in the community, Metcalf said.
“It was always our desire to be part of the new center,” he said.
The Mountain Brook store is one of seven Western stores in the Birmingham area.
“This is our first project of this size and caliber,” Metcalf said. “It’s been a lot of years since we built a new store – since 1992, in fact, although we’ve of course done some remodeling.”
With its modern design and many innovations, the new Mountain Brook Western aims to give customers more than just a great shopping experience. A spiral staircase just inside the front doors leads up to the mezzanine, where there’s an attractive dining area with free Wi-Fi.
“You can get your food or drinks downstairs and then take them upstairs to enjoy them,” Metcalf said. “We’ll have warm muffins that we bake fresh at about 6 a.m. O’Henry’s Coffee is our featured coffee; we’ll have anything a coffee shop would typically have. We’ve partnered with the Heavenly Donut Co. and will have their fresh donuts here every morning. There will also be a steam table with a full breakfast. And we’ll have hot chocolate-chip cookies all day.”
In another effort to be user-friendly, the store has placed its ready-to-eat options close to the entrance.
“A lot of big box stores try to make the consumer follow a certain path through the store to get them to buy more,” Metcalf said. “We said, let’s don’t make people go through a maze. We’ve made it easy to get in and out. We think it’s more respectful to our customers.”
Metcalf began his career with Western as a 17-year-old.
“I was a kid working part time for Winn-Dixie,” he said. “Stanley Virciglio, who was a co-owner and manager of the Highland Avenue Western, saw me there with my mom. He said, ‘I saw you at Winn-Dixie and noticed you were a good worker,’ and he offered me a job.
“I fell in love with the grocery business working for Stanley. (The Virciglio family now owns several Piggly Wiggly’s in the Over the Mountain area). All of a sudden, it was fun and exciting.”
Ken Hubbard, Western Supermarkets’ owner and CEO, also has a long association with the company.
“I started bagging groceries when I was 16 at the Five Points West store,” he said. “I put myself through school bagging groceries.”
Hubbard graduated in accounting from the University of Alabama.
“I’d accepted a job with a big accounting firm,” he said. “But Inos Heard, who was the Western founder, talked me into going to work for him – at $50 a month less than what Ernst & Ernst was going to pay me. He was a good salesman.”
Hubbard said the grocery store business has become much more competitive over the years.
“If you look at the last 20 years, obviously Wal-Mart Superstores have had a big effect,” he said. “You have the big box stores on one end of the spectrum and specialty stores on the other. But you can’t go to the specialty stores to buy soap powder. Here at Western, you can buy it all.”
Metcalf said the new store will have more organic options in the produce department, an expanded cheese shop with a qualified cheesemonger, and a bakery with custom cakes, house-made fudge and artisan breads. The Mountain Brook Western will be the first grocery store in Alabama to have a Coca-Cola Freestyle, a touch-screen machine that allows users to dispense more than 100 individual brands, he said.
“We’ve hired an executive chef to develop our salads, which are made fresh daily,” Metcalf said. “And a local guy who has a company called Spoon & Ladle is doing our soups. His products are so much better than any others we’ve found.
“We’ll have a hot wing bar. And we have our tried-and-true ‘meat and three;’ we’re in Alabama, after all, so you’ve got to have fried chicken and fried pork chops.”
The store’s Chan Irwin is one of the few female meat market managers in Alabama, Metcalf said.
“We offer three grades of beef: choice, 1881 Hereford and prime,” he said. “We’ve enlarged our seafood department, too.”
Longtime Western customers know that the store puts great emphasis on its wine sales and service. That’s evident in the new store, where the wine and beer department has its own separate – and impressive – space, with a tin cove ceiling, 12 growler taps for beer and a wine cave. Lining one long wall are racks with about 2,400 wine selections.
“We have four full-time wine consultants,” Metcalf said. “They can help consumers with the beer and wine for parties and other events.”
One new feature of the department is a wine-by-the-glass machine with 12 selections of wine. “You can buy a glass of wine and drink it up on the mezzanine or while you’re shopping,” Metcalf said.
The store welcomes people for more than just buying groceries.
“Upstairs, we have a meeting room that will be open to the public to reserve for things like a men’s morning Bible study, a bridge club or an offsite business meeting,” Metcalf said. “It can hold about 14 to 16 people.”
Western reaches out to the community in other ways. Proceeds from its annual Wine and Food Festival, held this year on Sept. 30, were donated to four charities: Crestline’s Emmet O’Neal Library, the Birmingham Zoo, Junior League of Birmingham and the East Lake Initiative.
“We have about 600 wines at this event plus locally produced foods,” Metcalf said. “This is our biggest event. We raised about $27,000 last year. We’ve been doing this or a similar event for the last 14 or 15 years. In fact, our first event was at a customer’s home.”
Both Metcalf and Hubbard are Rotary Club members, Metcalf said, and Hubbard serves on the board of directors for several organizations.
“During the holidays, we sell tickets at the registers for Scan-a-Meal, which benefits the Jimmie Hale Mission,” Hubbard said.
The company has been a big supporter of the Birmingham mission for years, he said.
“The kitchen at the Jimmie Hale Mission is named the Western Supermarket Kitchen,” Hubbard said.
He takes pride in his company’s support of small vendors and said Western has “hundreds of items that are local.”
Metcalf said one Birmingham-based vendor lives in Homewood’s Hollywood neighborhood.
“She makes this incredible pimento cheese for us,” he said.
Western even helped one big name in the food business launch her products in the retail world.
“The first pack of Sister Schubert’s rolls ever sold in Alabama was sold in Western,” Metcalf said.
Metcalf said this came about because he and the company’s founder, Patricia Barnes, had a mutual friend.
“He came to me and said, ‘I’m trying to help this lady sell her rolls,’” Metcalf said. “She’d been catering and selling the rolls from her family’s furniture store. I was the manager of the Mountain Brook store at the time. I remember Patricia standing on one end of an aisle, selling those rolls.”