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Lion & Ingles & Harris, Oh My! NC Grocery Bonanza Blowout

Grant Holub-Moorman

Harris Teeter or Food Lion? Earth Fare or Ingles? Lowes Foods or Lowe’s lumber yard? Groceries matter a lot to North Carolinians. And for good reason — our state produced some groundbreaking supermarket chains. From the end of the independent butcher shop to the racial integration of the checkout aisle, businesses experimented and changed the course of how we get our food.

Host Anita Rao lingers in the aisle with grocery scholars and independent grocers to learn about the suburban supermarket and alternative foodscape futures.

Credit Clarence Saunders
The early Piggly Wiggly floorplan was patented as an automatic selling machine. The one-way aisles and turnstiles forced shoppers to look at every item before heading to the checkout.

Her guests are:

Demetrius Hunter, founder of Grocers on Wheels and the Black Farmers’ HUB

 Lisa Tolbert, associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of the forthcoming book "Beyond Piggly Wiggly: A Cultural History of the Self-Service Store."

David Gwynn, creator of the and an associate professor and digital projects coordinator for the UNC-Greensboro libraries.

Some of the independent grocers we heard from:

  • Heather at Hopey and Co. in Buncombe County:  "The distributor will purchase a set amount of products assuming the grocery stores are gonna purchase it and stock it. Well, when overstock occurs at the distribution level, that’s where we come in… It’s almost like on an auction basis."

Credit Chimin Xiong
Early on in the pandemic, customers could get up-to-date information on what essential goods were in stock at Xieng Khouang Market Place.

  • Chimin at Xieng Khouang Market Place in Burke County: “I've met one Hmong lady here that she makes her own kimchi… There’s people ‘round here who’ll gladly support smaller local businesses instead of going to Walmart where they can probably get it cheaper."

  • Tanya at Hometown IGA in McCaysville, GA (near the Western NC border): “You’d have to travel 20 or 30 miles to get to another grocery store… There’s a lot of people shop here who used to work here as teenagers.”

  • Krista at Tidal Creek Co-Op in Wilmington: "When people come in for the first time, it's like a sense of relief that there aren't a million options."

  • Lee at Food World in Durham: “When I open this store, not much client. Nobody know me. How gonna selling, what gonna selling. Nobody know. It take time. All take time.”

Below: The transition from butchers to self-service meat took some marketing to convince customers of its safety.

Grant Holub-Moorman coordinates events and North Carolina outreach for WUNC, including a monthly trivia night. He is a founding member of Embodied and a former producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
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