By ANNA CATE LITTLE
In an age where smart phones interfere with smiles, greetings or simply making eye contact (guilty as charged), walking into the Piggly Wiggly takes one back to a simpler, friendlier time. The Homewood location, approaching its 35th year, may have evolved its merchandise with the times, but familiar faces and friendly greetings haven’t changed in decades.
Louise, who started in the ‘70s, has retired but still returns during the holidays to serve up her famous dressing. Store manager Johnny Miller and market manager Ron Stevens have been there since 1983 and 1984, respectively.
Frank and Travis, well, they’re mainstays on the front floor. You might see a long-time customer giving one of them a hug.
“We have to be careful about that!” laughed owner Stanley Virciglio. “We say, ‘Don’t you hug them, you let them hug you.’”
Originally a Winn-Dixie when Virciglio purchased the Homewood store in 1972, it operated as a Food Town until 1977 when he acquired the Piggly Wiggly franchise. He brought his son, Andy, to work from the time he was 11 years old, and now Andy co-owns and operates three Piggly Wiggly locations, including Crestline and River Run.
“You can go anywhere and buy Charmin tissue,” said Andy. “It’s the same Charmin here as it is anywhere else, so we try to have the best customer service and differentiate ourselves in our produce, our wine, our meats and our service. We know we’re convenient, but we want people to want to come here.”
The wine section has indeed received a facelift over the years. Since the first wine newsletter issued in 1999, this department has been the fastest growing by percentage of sales every year. Wine tastings are held every Friday from 4 until 6 p.m.; beer tastings are also Thursdays, 4 to 6 pm.
“[Our] wine stewards really talk to our customers,” said Andy. “I believe you don’t try to up-sale [customers]. You earn their trust by giving them a good wine that’s not high dollar. There are so many good $9 and $10 bottles of wine out there.”
“The first job I gave Andy was handling the beer and the wine,” said Stanley. “He’s done a really great job of improving our wine business.”
Another quality that gives Piggly Wiggly that neighborhood feel is the plethora of locally made products on the shelves. Naturally More peanut butter is a top seller. Bates turkeys, Millie Ray’s rolls, Dean’s cakes and even Nick Saban’s BBQ sauce are all Alabama-owned businesses.
“Our philosophy is if you’re local and you’ve got a product, we’ll give it a try,” said Andy. “We’re local, so we try to support locals. A lot of times I don’t even ask questions, I just put it on the shelf and see how it does.”
There’s also something to be said about fresh chicken. The Pig’s chicken breasts and whole fryers are freshly packaged on-site, rather than most grocers’ pre-chill-packed method. “That’s what we’ve built our business on,” said Stanley.
Looking ahead in 2012, Piggly Wiggly will team with UAB for a cutting-edge nutritional incentive program, Eat Right by UAB. The program, developed by UAB doctors and nutritionists, has been in the works for more than two years.
“It’s a nutritional value system to help educate the consumer on the right foods to eat,” said Andy. “These items will be labeled throughout our store. In due time, we’ll have an awards program [through the website chiprewards.com]. You earn points for buying healthy items, and there are over two million prizes you can redeem with your reward points.”
Even though Stanley has retired and battled prostate cancer, he can’t seem to stay away from the store. “Andy really handles everything, but I come down every day,” he said.
“Even Sunday,” added Andy. “The employees see him and that’s important. A lot of customers have been coming here for years and still see him. It’s rare to have stores in communities where the community is part of the store. And Homewood is that way.”
3000 Montgomery Highway
Mon.-Sat., 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.