Three generations of Wests are the foundation of West Foods, doing business in Edison since 1967. Founder Richard West (right) has retired, but comes in every day to provide advice for his son John (left) and granddaughter Taylor. Photo: Kayla Moore

Innovation helps small independent grocer thrive

How does a small independent grocer not only survive, but thrive, in the age of Instacart and two-hour delivery windows?

Sure, it helps that West Foods is the sole grocery store in Edison, a tiny town in southwest Georgia’s Calhoun County. The closest brick-and-mortar competitor is in Cuthbert, 15 miles away.

But, it seems the real secret to their success is not exclusivity, but the ability — and the desire — to innovate.

“We’ve been in the grocery business since 1967. Our customers can drive anywhere, so how do we differentiate ourselves from the big chains?” asked John West, who purchased the store from his dad, Richard.

“Dad worked in a grocery store when he was in high school,” West said. “Later, he sold insurance, and then paper goods. In 1967, he moved to Edison and, with a partner, created West Foods. In 1972, we moved to our current location, a 6,000-square-foot grocery store with a cooked food operation. That was unheard of in 1972. Everyone said, ‘You can’t sell fried chicken at a grocery store.’ Now, look. You can’t find a Publix that doesn’t sell fried chicken.”

Not much later, the store added another innovation, off-site catering.

And, if you needed your groceries delivered, that was always part of the service.

The store continues to serve hot breakfast and lunch every day. At westfoodsinc.com, you can purchase Hoover’s water-ground cornmeal and Roddenberry’s cane patch syrup, and have it shipped anywhere in the world. Or, you can order any of their new and not-so-new deep-fried peanut products.

The newest West Foods innovation is their chocolate-covered deep-fried peanut cluster, a confection that won the 2017 Flavor of Georgia competition.

The Wests created the Georgia Fried Peanut Co. (facebook.com/gafriedpeanuts), offering their peanuts and candies for sale, both wholesale and retail. You can buy the perfectly deep-fried peanuts (a finalist in the 2018 Flavor of Georgia competition), vanilla peanut clusters, or the original chocolate peanut clusters, on Amazon and Etsy.

Or, find them in one of the more than 45 retail locations, from wineries to grocery stores, that have them in stock. “Some of the attention came after we won the Flavor of Georgia competition. Some came to us when they saw our offerings on the Georgia Grown website,” West said.

West Foods continues to be a family business, now moving into its third generation. “The store provided my father with a good life. I got to watch him raise seven children and send them all to college. I joined the store in October 1992, when I was 21 years old. Now, with Taylor, I see the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” West said.

His daughter, Taylor, started working in the store when she was 14. “I saw my dad raise me, and give me the life everybody wants. I would love to do that with my family,” she said. She went off to college, but came back to work full time in the business two years ago. When the peanut clusters took off, she took charge.

The clusters are made next door to the grocery store. “We didn’t see any reason to move a perfectly fine family business that’s been so successful here,” she said.

For the Wests, being small means being flexible.

“We have one full-time employee — me — and two part-time. I fry the peanuts, I make the clusters, I wrap them, and label them, and box them. I take care of the shipping. The only thing Dad does is make the labels,” Taylor West said.

The fried peanut business is growing, but the Wests are working to control that growth carefully. “We’re trying to do everything the right way, and especially not make promises to customers we cannot keep, or agree to deadlines we cannot make,” John West said. “We’ve built our grocery business on good customer service. That’s what makes us who we are.”

Richard West retired twice, but you’ll still find him at the store.

“He’s 79, and he retired at 70. We threw him a retirement party and all. But, he still comes to work every day. He’ll say, ‘I’m just here to give you advice,’” West said.

“Like my dad, my heart, my passion, is still the grocery business. I hope it will be until I get ready to die. I hope the next owner will care about the grocery business and the community as much as we have. It’s been a good business to be in. We’ve met so many good people, and made so many friends.”

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