Tinnell’s Finer Foods Inc., the old-fashioned south Roanoke grocery store, will close next month and reopen in the fall as a shop serving lunch and offering to-go food.
Owners Everett “Rett” and Maria Ward agreed to sell the legendary store to the owners of The River and Rail restaurant next door, the Wards said Friday.
“We knew that our business model needed to change,” said Rett Ward, whose grandfather started the neighborhood grocery in 1937. “Maria and I just felt it was time to pass the baton to the younger generation, and it’s exciting.”
The new store — whose name has not yet been determined — will focus on in-house food service, catering, and retail beer and wine, said Aaron Deal, executive chef at The River and Rail, said.
“It’s no longer going to be, per se, a grocery store,” Deal said.
The space will have seating, offer sandwiches and salads for lunch in the $10-$16 range, sell prepared meals and host wine and culinary classes.
Some Tinnell’s staples will remain, such as its famous ham biscuits and homemade pimento cheese.
The store will close by the end of the month or first week of July, Rett Ward said, for immediate renovations. Its replacement is slated to open in the beginning of November, Deal said.
“We’ve been a dying breed for half the time we’ve owned the store, because the stores that were like us are gone,” Maria Ward said. “We joke because our grocery wholesaler would never pick us up as a customer now because we’re so tiny.”
Today, walking into Tinnell’s is like stepping into Eisenhower America. Beneath a mid-century logo, compact aisles proffer canned pinto beans and shampoo, crackers and ice cream. A crisper with produce and a U.S.-flag-draped meat counter where you can buy a hamburger complete the picture.
In 1939, Russell “Buddy” Tinnell moved his two-year-old grocery from Marshall Avenue near downtown to a spot in south Roanoke next to a competing Mick-or-Mack store. Later, in the mid-1950s, Tinnell’s moved its store to 2205 Crystal Spring Avenue, where it has been since.
When the Wards took over in 2000, the store didn’t have an automatic checkout scanner. Employees tallied up costs on an old cash register. They changed that.
One tradition that has stayed since the Wards bought the shop: customer charge accounts, in which patrons can say “Charge it,” and buy their groceries without the hassle of a credit card or signature.
Those accounts won’t have a place in the new Tinnell’s. Nor a meat counter, at least at first.
“It won’t have all of the groceries we have now,” Rett Ward said. “But that’s probably been the biggest change that has happened in the last 10 years is those items — the dog food and the cat food and the paper towels, that’s just become such a commodity item now.”
In the past 10 years especially, the grocery business has changed “lightning fast,” he said, as customers have gravitated toward big stores and online outlets for grocery items, and profit margins have slimmed further.
Last summer, Maria Ward took a class through Virginia Western Community College on entrepreneurship and the gig economy.
Inspired by a concept from the course, the Wards held a gathering in July of about 25 people — a mix of neighbors, everyday shoppers and occasional buyers. Rather than instituting changes they thought the store needed, they asked their customers and neighbors what they wanted in a grocery store. (In a twist of irony — or fate — they held the event at The River and Rail.)
The feedback was overwhelming. The Wards had been thinking they needed to refocus the store on more prepared meals and gourmet groceries. They began thinking at this stage in their lives there would be others more capable of making that transition a reality.
“We’re grocery,” Maria Ward said. “We don’t really know how to run a restaurant at all.”
Businesses in Charlottesville and other areas had approached the Wards looking at the Tinnell’s space for their business. But when the Tinnell’s realtor approached Lauren and Whit Ellerman, owners of The River and Rail, they were interested.
The Wards said the Ellermans had a great business plan, and they were happy to pass the store over to them.
“We’re very excited,” Deal said. “It’s a great opportunity. It’s a great space.”
On Friday evening, the Wards held heartfelt conversations with patrons in the wine aisle.
“Customers love this store as much as I do and it’s been emotional for me and emotional for a lot of customers as well,” Rett Ward said. “The one thing that I’ve tried to communicate to the customers is that, it is a really sad day, but the end result is going to be so great.”