After 70 years of serving Greater Birmingham, Western Supermarkets is closing up shop, for good. Word that the brand’s few last bastions, including its Rocky Ridge location, are closing and making way for new Publix stores came in January as online sales and “click and collect” services are refashioning the grocery industry. In fighting the good fight, the ‘50s holdover outlived its homegrown peer, Bruno’s, by more than a decade.
Some would chalk Western’s longevity up to having the best cuts in town, but the store’s tenacity through changing times is in larger part a testament of its employees’ commitment to customer service. After working for the grocery store for most of their lives, Western’s most seasoned employees, many of us would argue, are the linchpins to its success, the real reason regulars pop in nearly every day for something they “forgot.” Thankful for its long run, Western is riding off into the sunset. Now, with heavy hearts, but open minds, its veterans are saddling up for a new adventure but not without taking memories of their Western years with them.
Receiving Manager and Wine Consultant
Judging from the way Russell Taylor and Produce Manager Jeff Cleckler get on nowadays, you’d never guess they were “almost blood enemies” at one time. Fortunately for the longtime colleagues, their grievances eventually mellowed into mutual respect.
At some point after the receiving manager’s teambuilding skills ripened, he became a certified sommelier. “There’s always more to learn, which was the main reason I went into the field. I came to the conclusion that it would be a never-ending story,” says the fast-talking history buff.
Western rewarded him with a spot as a wine consultant. “Russell is a jack-of-all-trades. He took it on himself to learn the wine business, and he does an excellent job. He became one of our two store consultants, doubling his duties,” Western CEO Ken Hubbard says.
Equally suited to the front and back end of the business, Russell’s not lacking in people skills. His advice? “Don’t make people feel awkward. If they’re not running away, it’s working.”
Looking back on his decades at the store, Russell is most grateful his hippie hair and flip-flops didn’t thwart his attempts at getting the new weekend girl’s digits, 34 years ago. “I never expected to meet my soul mate at Western. The best thing that’s come out of my entire career here would be Jennifer. As for the future, I have a 10-year plan. My instincts are to stick with what I know.”
Front End Manager
Quick-witted and plainspoken, Concheta isn’t one to mess with. As Front End Manager she had to be willing to put her foot down to keep things running smoothly. But everyone knows she wouldn’t have been “in charge of customer service,” as her nametag stated, if she didn’t have a softer side.
“There’s a retirement community next door, and Concheta would take their orders and actually deliver their groceries. She did this on her own time just to help these folks,” recalls CEO Ken Hubbard.
When Concheta saw the need for a permanent floral designer, she took on the job and broke every record for Western’s annual plant sale, perturbing the owner of a nearby nursery. She was driven to excel, feeling beholden to do her best for the coworkers who’ve become more like family over the years. “When I had difficulties in my personal life, these people just rallied around me and picked me up. You can’t put a price tag on that now,” Concheta says.
Concheta paid it forward, lending an ear to customers whose lives and struggles she vicariously experienced. She still couldn’t tell you their first names. “Thirty-six years ago, somebody believed in me and gave me the opportunity to become who I am. I would not have missed this experience for anything in the world. I’ve been at several stores, and this community is by far the best. I’m going to miss everybody, but it’s not a total goodbye.”
There probably aren’t many wives who would tolerate a husband’s late-night chats with other women. But Mrs. Bullock was one of the rare few. “They weren’t calling me. They were calling Western,” David Bullock explains.
David doesn’t believe in signs, the paper kind, at least. He’s a word-of-mouth kind-of guy, because he knows if it’s worth hearing about, it’ll get around. He could rely on his customers, which make up half his contact list, to spread the juicy news of upcoming warehouse sales. Occasionally during the backroom event, a new face would prompt an inquiry from nosy neighbors, “Y’all new to the area?” And more often than not, the answer was no. Folks familiar with David’s meats were often willing to drive more than half an hour for the right cut.
Savoring singular experiences, David aimed to widen his customers’ horizons through carefully placed special orders. He ensured they were among the first Southerners to lay eyes on a Tomahawk cut, a visually striking rib steak with an extremely long bone. “Western’s always had some sort of niche that nobody else had,” says David.
And that’s why its unflaggingly loyal customers are so crestfallen at the revelation of its closure. “They might be mad, because we’re closing. But they’re not mad at Western,” he says. “I’m still going to work a couple more years. I’ve got some irons in the fire.”
Western has Jeff Cleckler to thank for having been one of the strongest produce retailers in the state. Since clocking in on his fourteenth birthday, he never looked back, sharing his skills along the way with staff who’ve gone on to become produce managers at other supermarkets.
Unlike his protégés, Jeff, the third-longest serving employee, couldn’t bear to leave. About five years ago when another company approached him with a higher paying offer, he begrudgingly turned in his notice. “I had my manager’s blessing, but I was having a hard time pulling the trigger. He didn’t have to try real hard to talk me out of it,” Jeff admits.
Ultimately, Jeff didn’t want to give up on a company that had empowered him throughout his career and personal adversities. “They were there for me, like I was there for them,” says Jeff, who’s lived through the better part of Western’s history.
When the produce pundit proved his knack for the buying side of the business, Western didn’t hesitate to hand him the reins. “Working at a smaller place like this, you know your voice can be heard. It feels more like a family, and that’s why people are so sad that this is the end of Western’s story. I’d like to work three more years and then focus on my grandkids.”