The longest-running grocery operation here paused to remember its founding father, Ralph Ketner. The supermarket legend from Salisbury died May 29 at the age of 95 from cancer.
Tom Smith, Ketner’s successor as CEO of Food Lion, became the face of the grocery chain in the 1980s by personally appearing in TV commercials, principally during ACC basketball games. And Smith wasn’t half bad at it.
But you’d never catch the Lion of Food Lion on TV. Co-founder Ketner had an opposite persona — they say he hated public speaking.
Instead, Ketner had a reputation as a hard-driving bean counter. And his drive for charging — and touting — cut-rate grocery prices came decades before anyone had ever heard of Walmart.
Food Town, the chain’s original name, came here in the early 1960s as the anchor of Jonesville Shopping Center, our first center. It took on the mighty, national A&P chain whose store across the river on North Bridge Street in Elkin was ruling the grocery business here in the hometown.
And it wasn’t long before Food Lion was building its second-generation store at Kirk Plaza in Jonesville while A&P withered and closed, its site now a vacant, grassed lot above Elkin City Hall.
The Lion also chased the then-Wilkesboro-based Lowes Foods out of town and even took over Lowes’ old storefront in Elkin Village shopping center where it remains today. In Jonesville, Food Lion is in its third-generation store at Foothills Market Shopping Center.
Ketner’s was a classic Horatio Alger story. He grew up during the Depression, orphaned at age 11, worked for his brother in the grocery business and dropped out of college when he ran out of money.
After a tour in the Army, Ketner struck out on his own, soliciting investors by looking in the local phone book. He made those first 125 investors millionaires. He opened the first Food Town in 1957 in Salisbury.
He took a serious gamble in 1968 after he locked himself in a Charlotte motel room with an adding machine and worked out a formula to cut his grocery prices to the bone. He said in his biography later that he had calculated that by slashing profit margins he’d need to increase sales by 50 percent to make it work. He got 80 percent in the first year, and it went up from there.
They came up with an ad slogan, LFPINC, lowest food prices in North Carolina. It worked.
In 1976 an European company bought majority ownership and wisely left Ketner, and later Smith, as CEOs. Legend has it that Ketner chose the name Lion to replace Town because he’d only need to buy the letters “L” and “I” for store signs. Food Town already had a Scottish-style lion as a logo.
The name change was necessitated by the presence of another Food Town grocery in Tennessee.
Ketner retired in 1991. He was inducted to the Supermarket News Hall of Fame in 2011.
Ketner’s hometown newspaper, the Salisbury Post, eulogized him as a supermarket genius who pioneered low-margin groceries and innovative buying, distribution and merchandising.
The Lion still is roaring today, an important member of our supermarket trifecta, along with Black Mountain-based Ingles and Walmart, headquartered in Arkansas.
We all get groceries. And we have Ketner, who had a big hand in the way we get them today, to thank.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.
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