CHRISTIANSBURG — Greg Wade hasn’t been eager to talk about his family’s legacy.

The third-generation Wade to occupy the helm of a grocery chain that once dominated the New River Valley, he’s waged a David-and-Goliath style battle against Kroger, Walmart and others since he took a leadership role in the early 1990s.

The family business is still alive after nearly 70 years, and managers say that’s an anomaly to be proud of. But it has spiraled from seven locations to one remaining in Christiansburg.

And now that store is teetering on the edge.

Greg Wade, by all accounts, has not given up — and likely never will. Yet his back is against the wall.

He didn’t sit down for an in-depth interview but spoke briefly during a terse conversation as auctioneers sold off pieces from the chain’s now shuttered Dublin store last month. Wade cited a combination of family politics and the harsh reality of a changing retail industry that is forcing his hand.

He didn’t stick around long enough to watch most of the auction. But before he left, he said he would love to renovate the last remaining store to give it a better chance of survival if he owned 51 percent of the business.

But he doesn’t.

Company stock has been divided over the years, and not all of the owners have grown up with a name that matches the signature red lettering on the familiar marquee, or the same dedication Greg Wade posesses .

“I think we’ll all be glad to get out of it,” Greg Wade said as he turned to walk away.

It wasn’t a convincing line.

“He’s heartbroken,” said Garry Willard, who has worked at Wades for 43 years. “There’s no question. He’s heartbroken that he is going to be the one — he either continues it or lets it go.”

Christiansburg was once dotted with independent grocers, from Angle’s to Poff’s. But, like the rest of the retail industry, big box stores now reign supreme and days seem numbered for locally owned supermarkets. Within three miles of Wades’ last holdout there are now two Food Lions, a Walmart, Kroger, Target and Aldi.

Wades’ store in Pulaski was the first to go in 1998, then its two Blacksburg locations in 2000 and 2005, Pearisburg in 2008, Radford in 2016 and Dublin this spring.

Willard retired as manager of the Christiansburg store last month and spent one of his last days at the store reminiscing about the good times, when Wades was known from Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta to PepsiCo in New York. He said the business consistently topped Kroger in the New River Valley through the 1980s with its uniquely personalized touch .

Wades took butcher shop orders by phone. It gave free food to new neighbors and hosted car washes in the parking lot for cheerleading squads. It didn’t have a delivery service, but managers dropped off groceries for those who asked nicely. Someone at the store checked obituaries for loyal customers, and sent food trays to funeral homes when they spotted familiar names.

“It’s to that point where we can’t afford that anymore,” Willard said. “But even up until this year, with all the trouble they’re in, they have been a community oriented business.”

The shelves are emptier these days, but the nostalgia and community affinity endures. The store has trimmed hours as part of a cost-savings plan and made pleas for support in the local media. Wades’ survival is dependent on whether shoppers choose to keep the local institution afloat, they say.

“As little product as we have on our shelf, they still continue because they want us to be here,” Willard said. “They hug you every day, they want to pray for you, they want to do everything to keep you in business.”

Managers have ideas to try to turn things around, namely downsizing the store to focus on the deli and hot foods aisles and renting the rest of the building to another tenant. They say about 80 percent of sales comes from 20 percent of inventory, so there’s room to shrink.

But that kind of change requires cash — and Wades has little of that.

“More people ask us [if we’re closing] than don’t ask us,” Customer Service Manager Norman Lepchitz said. “It’s tough to give them an answer, because we really don’t know at this point.”

The Christiansburg store, long the company’s bellwether, is living day-to-day. The meat coolers suffered a mechanical failure on Father’s Day and managers fear another missed holiday like that could be hard to recover from.

The owners have no plans to close the store right now, but they also have no idea how long that will be the case.

“We’re straddling the fence,” Lepchitz said. “We’re doing everything we can to get to the right side of the fence to continue the operation, but just one more little thing could be the thing that keeps us on the wrong side of the fence.”

In the beginning

The Wade family — a New River Valley presence for generations — has been in the retail industry since at least 1925, but they mark 1950 as the official beginning of modern-day Wades Supermarkets. That’s when Haden and Elinor Wade, Greg Wade’s grandparents, opened their first large grocery in what is now a FedEx distribution center at 305 Roanoke Street in Christiansburg.

Their son, Lowell Wade, got his start running the family’s meat shop. It was a job that got him involved in the family business and shaped the way he would run it.

Fresh-cut meats have always been a focus of Wades, and even now it is what keeps many shoppers coming back.

Willard said that job is also where Lowell became well-versed in the physical demands of the job. He was a master of efficiency, but Lowell realized then he couldn’t ask his staff to work harder and faster.

Instead, he developed a fixation with finding ways to work smarter.

He attended trade shows and read industry magazines, taking risks to adopt new methods long before his less flexible competitors could. In 1982, Lowell Wade was elected director of the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington-based industry association, according to The Roanoke Times archives.

Wades took orders by fax machines. It was the first store in the region to use scanners at the cash registers, which was unproven technology at the time. It was also the first to put prices on the shelf, instead of stamping each product individually.

“That was a very bold move,” Willard said. “They [customers] didn’t trust it at all. So we left the price on things and slowly took the prices off.”

Wades was also among the first retailers worldwide to go online, when it joined the experimental Blacksburg Electronic Village internet service in 1994. It started with the floral department, earning national headlines when a web surfer in Kuwait was able to order daisies for someone in Pennsylvania.

At the time, Wades was celebrated for standing on the cutting edge.

Michael McIntyre, 46, was in his early 20s when he was hired to write that software for Wades. He wasn’t a professional coder, but his dad, David McIntyre, was a longtime Wades employee and one of the “resident nerds” coming up with these new ideas, the younger McIntyre said.

He had to start from scratch, since it was long before online purchasing software was available. McIntyre eventually put a desktop computer on a cart, connected it to a car battery and went up and down aisles scanning items and creating a digital map of the entire store.

“It was the kind of environment when you could just try stuff like that,” McIntyre said. “As far as I remember, the online ordering was a total wash. It didn’t work out at all. It was just too early. It was an idea before its time.”

The family business grew to a regional chain of stores from Blacksburg to Pearisburg under Lowell’s watch, and the family name became synonymous with the New River Valley.

Lowell Wade also owned a group of convenience stores, called Deli Marts and Food Times. The company had 14 locations in 2006.

His businesses were where neighborhood kids got their first jobs, sometimes as young as 14. The deli’s ham biscuits became a mainstay at potluck dinners, the hot dog chili was a must at Virginia Tech football tailgate gatherings and its potato wedges a comfort food for a generation of locals.

Roger Woolwine, who managed Wades groceries from the 1970s until 1999, remembers the overflow parking lot he had to set up for employees when the Christiansburg lot became overcrowded.

Business was booming, with plenty of money to take chances on new stores, renovations and unproven technologies.

“It is sad for me to remember the good times,” Woolwine said. “We would go to North Carolina and people there knew who we were.”

Customer loyalty was surpassed only by that of the employees . When Woolwine left Wades for a less strenuous job selling cars, he said he was offered a position at Kroger — but accepting it would have been unthinkable.

“They offered me one heck of a salary and I just couldn’t do it, because the first people that come out of there and say, ‘Roger I can’t believe you went to Kroger after the way Wades was with you,’ ” Woolwine said. “Oh, that would have just torn me all to pieces.”

Employment in the family’s grocery business has fallen from over 400 to 46, but 12 of those workers have been with the company for more than 20 years. During one recent afternoon shift, three employees were on the clock with a combined 156 years of service among them.

“I could not have a better boss,” Woolwine said of Lowell Wade.

Willard and Lepchitz said Lowell Wade began handing the business over to his sons, Greg and Scott Wade, in the early 1990s. According to applications for alcohol licenses, Greg Wade was the president of Wades Supermarkets by 2009 and Scott Wade was the president of Deli Marts.

But things were already changing by then.

Kroger, which completed a $12 million renovation of its Christiansburg store last year, was becoming a greater threat, as were other chains like Walmart and Food Lion. They had multiple advantages — larger stores but no loans to pay off, lower prices but greater margins. It was never a fair fight.

Profits took a hit and stores began closing.

Lowell Wade, who still lives in Christiansburg, took out a loan and later entered foreclosure proceedings in 2011. The foreclosure trustee sold two of his pieces of property on Roanoke and North Franklin streets for a combined $375,000 to cover the debt. Neither parcel ever housed a Wades grocery.

To complicate things further, Scott Wade, who owned percentages of the family business entities, died in 2013.

Greg Wade said that put a lot of “outside pressures” on the ownership structure, as he hasn’t been able to acquire 51 percent of the family business since . If he were a majority shareholder, he said he would reinvest in the Christiansburg store.

“With the ownership structure the way that it is, me — nor the other two owners — want to invest any more money,” Wade said. “So this is our only choice.”

The result was a chain of stores, frozen in time with dwindling revenues, and not enough cash to keep up with competition. It was passed by with new trends in the industry, such as wine tasting bars, artisanal cheese shops and curbside pickup.

Willard remembers a time when he would have expected Wades to be the region’s first grocer with self-checkouts, but that technology never did arrive. Greg Wade, he said, just never had the opportunity to run the business like his father had.

“Mr. [Lowell] Wade would not be afraid to take that step, but he also had the financial power to do that,” Willard said. “Greg, I think, has not had the financial ability to do that even though he is as bright as his father.”

In the end

Nothing was off limits as auctioneers wandered up and down the aisles of the old Wades Dublin store shortly after it closed several weeks ago.

David Hagan, co-owner of the Shelor Motor Mile business group, bought the building for $460,000. A box of Wades employee hats sold for $5. The deli meat slicer went for $375 and the display that once held the store’s famous ham biscuits fetched $20.

Greg Phillips paid $180 for a Wades-branded clock.

“I’ve been shopping at Wades my whole life,” he said. “It’s something nostalgic, I guess.”

Even the comments box that used to sit by the door sold for $1. Before, it was a place for locals to drop love letters to the local grocery store they hoped would find a way to survive. Now, it feels more like a time capsule from a bygone era.

“Wades has the best meats in Dublin,” one anonymous commenter scribbled on a questionnaire and dropped in the box at some unknown past time .

The customers offered advice about what they thought could help, like turning the location into a specialty store, plugging leaks in the roof and moving restaurant-style seating into the deli.

“We need you,” one customer wrote.

Of the 37 questionnaires left inside the comments box, every one gave the store the highest possible mark for friendliness of the staff.

“The community — regardless of what we look like day in and day out — they still want us here,” Willard said.

The family business entities still own more than a handful of Deli Marts and Food Times around the New River Valley, which operate independent of the grocery stores.

And Lepchitz stressed that the Christiansburg supermarket still has a chance.

The meat and deli portion of the business is still doing well, but everything else needs to pick up.

“He [Greg Wade] is heartbroken, but he hasn’t given up,” Willard said. “I think his heart is still in it big time. And his heart has always been in it.”

Get the day's top stories delivered to your inbox with our email newsletter.

Recommended for you

Load comments