Ten determined residents of this state capital city along the St. Jones River recently pooled their resources and managed to turn an event that seemed to spell disaster for their personal and professional lives--the closing of a chain food store--into a success story, in the form of a money-making, independently-owned enterprise.
Despite being the third most profitable store in the Food Fair Inc. chain, the Dover store one mile north of the capitol building was closed suddenly along with 48 other Baltimore regional stores when Food Fair pulled out of that market in July 1981.
"Life ended," said Myrtle Givens, who had worked 22 years at the Dover Pantry Pride as head cashier. "That was your career."
What was left were the more than 50 people who had made the store work.
Horace Cook, 52, the store's manager for 28 years, said he spent a couple of days in shock after returning from vacation to learn he would be out of a job in two weeks.
"Then we got together and talked as people do when they lose their jobs," he said.
The general feeling from those meetings was that most people didn't want to change professions or to leave Dover to look for new jobs. Dover is a city where a strong work ethic places pride before the time clock, said Givens.
Cook, buoyed by some coworkers' willingness to stake capital on a possible purchase of the store, consulted Paul Morris, assistant vice president at the Delaware Trust Company, and lawyer Roy Shields about setting up a corporation to buy the Pantry Pride store.
When the initial soundings were positive, Cook and nine of his coworkers decided to incorporate and purchase the store. "We had an understanding of the store. We knew the ins and outs," said William Cook, Horace's son.
Equipped with $266,000 from selling 266 shares in the newly-formed Cooks of Dover Inc. and a reasonable assurance from the state that a $500,000 industrial revenue bond would be available to them, Cook went to the Food Fair headquarters in New York to bid on the abandoned Pantry Pride store in August 1981.
The bid of $425,000 obtained the store. Cook then reached an agreeement with food wholesalers Fleming Cos. Inc. of Philadelphia to act as a wholesale grocery supplier and to purchase the then-approved revenue bond. The grand opening was set for mid-October 1981.
The Thriftway, as the Dover store is called, is one of 83 Thriftway stores in the eastern region of the country operating under the Fleming Cos. It also has stores in Flordia and in the Midwest and the West.
Community support for a new store mounted when the only remaining chain store drastically increased food prices, according to Cook.
He said that this set the stage for what is now called "The Great Turkey Rush of Dover." The Thriftway grand opening featured a two-week special on turkey at the wholesale price of 49 cents a pound. About 18,000 were sold. "The Great Turkey Rush" set the Thriftway grocery store on a new and profitable course.
"The consumers were just wild about the prices," said Allen Hedgecock, a member of the board of directors. "We made the commitment and we went through with it. It got the store off to a very visible start."
Store sales have increased by 12 percent since reopening, bringing the average volume per week to more than $150,000. The store is making more money than it did as Pantry Pride. Thriftway has 30 full-time and 23 part-time employes. Ten employes own 40 percent of the stock and the remaining 60 percent is held publicly by "the citizens of Dover."
Management at the Thriftway has found that breaking the link with a chain has increased employe morale, improved the quality of work and made the store more responsive to the needs of the community.
The greater flexiblity of an owner-operated store creates a better working environment for employes, said Givens. "People always had interest in their jobs but now they are a little bit more concerned."
To get a better feel for the local markets, Thriftway immediately began to make purchases of produce from area farmers. "We called a couple of farmers and asked them what they had," said Cook.
"That's all we had to do. The farmers then began calling us," he said.
Thriftway made 25 percent of its $1.25 million of purchases last year from local farmers. "As a chain we never bought any produce from the local farmers. Now we promote local farmers quite heavily for their farm products," said Cook.
"This puts money all right back into the local economy," he said.
The heavy response by the farmers surprised Cook, who had bleak visions of being unable to fill the shelves in the 27,500-square-foot building. But the freedom to buy products from any source has allowed Thriftway to "provide a larger variety than the supermarket chains," said Cook.
"We can buy and sell at will," he said. "The manager can't buy anything in a chain unless he gets approval."
Givens, described as the store "spark plug," is the secretary and treasurer for Cooks of Dover, Inc. She also bags groceries and does other necessary odd jobs around the store. "We all do everything here," she said.
Cook said that when he was the manager of the unionized Pantry Pride, the people "were not so dedicated as they are today." Now, Cook said, the workers take "more pride" in their work. "Everything we have promised them, we have done," he said.
Working in an independent store gives the employes a feeling of a "profession and not just a job per se," said William Cook. "We feel we are professionals now. In a chain, you either did it or die."
The greatest problem in the initial months of operation was obtaining credit, Cook said. "When we opened up there were a number of suppliers who would not give us credit," he said. Cook was agitated further when Food Fair, after filing for bankruptcy with a debt of $369 million, turned around and immediately got a new line of credit.
"It was damned hard to get credibility," he said. Thriftway earned recognition by paying "our bills from delivery tickets," said Cook.
Fleming Cos.--the group that under whose banner Thriftway operates--views itself as a service industry providing an overall structure for independent grocers to operate, said John Woods, a sales service representive from the Philadelphia division. "We can't survive without the retailer," he said.
Fleming provides merchandising information, accounting, electronic services, marketing, advertising and promotional capabilities to Thriftway stores, said Woods.
Cook said these services are "something an independent could not do on this scale." Operating with Fleming gives Thriftway the "same basic rights as a chain except we have more input into it."
Once a week, the 83 independents meet with Fleming representatives in Philadelphia and vote on prices and merchandise to be sold. "The independent retailers are real sharp and if Fleming is not aware of market prices , they will get all over them," said Cook.
Cook said that the weekly meetings force the retailers to stay in tune with market trends and in turn keep their main wholesaler, Fleming, in line with demand and prices. In the past, Cook said he had little exposure to market prices, since he only purchased what the chain headquarters requested.
Cook says his increased exposure to markets allows him to better evaluate consumer demand, which has become more sophisticated the last few years. "Consumers are wiser shoppers, more educated and not impulse buying like they used to," he said.
Cook has served as Chamber of Commerce president twice. He also has been president of the United Way and the Rotary Club and currently is president of the Air Force Association Galaxy Chapter.
Dover has a mixed population of 37,000. Many of the farm families in the area date back to the Revolutionary War era. The bulk of the remaining population are connected with the Dover Air Force Base or are state government employes. The city has a national reputation for being an inexpensive place to locate corporations.
"Living here you can enjoy the rural life and still enjoy the city," said Cook. "This has everything you could want in a rural area and you don't deny your family anything--makes it a full family life."