In business for 36 years and a landmark at its current location for 20, Ken's IGA in Brooklet recently completed its largest store expansion so far, growing from a corner grocery to more of a supermarket, with wider aisles and a new abundance of dairy products and frozen foods.
It's not that owner Ken NeSmith and his family didn't add products and variety over the years. On the contrary, the store grew inside its walls, packing more goods around narrowing aisles.
"We were bursting at the seams," said Jason NeSmith, who co-manages the store with his sister Jennie Bray.
Then the renovation, begun in January and completed in May, increased the store's retail space from 7,500 square feet to about 13,500, he said.
Now the aisles are wider, especially around the store's perimeter. To accomplish this, a new 2,000-square-foot back room - the part of a store that includes the office and employee areas - was built and the previous backroom space added to the sales floor.
Additionally, three meat cases across the store's interior back wall were moved back five feet, and some behind-the-counter coolers and freezers moved outside the store. Sixteen feet of shelving along Aisle 1 was also removed, and eight feet of produce display added instead.
But the biggest additions are in dairy products, with 54 feet of new product space, and frozen food, with 20 more doors of self-service freezers. Just to cite an example, there's now a freezer section devoted to Blue Bell ice cream.
The expansion in prepared products such as frozen foods reflects the changing demand of customers, NeSmith said.
"When people ask for new items, now we have the space, which is important," Bray said.
"Keeping customers satisfied and shopping with us, and enjoying shopping with us, is our main goal," NeSmith summed up later.
The siblings manage the day-to-day operations of the three-store, family-owned business founded by their father, Ken, who is still actively involved.
Another part of the addition was paving and striping for about 15 more parking spaces on the west end of the building. The store draws customers not just from Brooklet and Statesboro, but from farther away towns such as Claxton, Metter and Millen.
The new variety in dairy and frozen foods takes nothing away from the tradition of quality meats at attractive prices, reflected in weekly specials, which has been a calling card for Ken's as a destination store. Some space was also added in the meat counters, and in front of the meat section is a key area where the aisle was widened to promote browsing.
"That's what dad has grown his business on, having the freshest meat - always fresh, always the best that we can get," NeSmith said.
Ken NeSmith started Ken's IGA in 1978 as a small grocery store in an existing storefront in downtown Brooklet - the building where Bradley's Attic is now located. He built his own store, at the current spot on U.S. Highway 80, in 1994.
That was also the year that Jason, at age 13, started working with his father in the Brooklet store, and riding with him to the Blitchton store as well.
Jennie NeSmith Bray earned an accounting degree at Georgia Southern University, and now handles the company's accounting.
"But I went the IGA education route," quipped Jason NeSmith, who continued working in the stores from high school.
IGA stands for Independent Grocers Alliance. Stores with this designation are independently owned, not part of a chain, except that Ken NeSmith's company owns three of them.
He bought the Blitchton store, at the intersection of U.S. Highways 80 and 280, in 1981 or 1982; and the Guyton store in 2010. In fact, the Guyton store marked its fourth birthday as a Ken's IGA on July Fourth.
Next, the NeSmiths plan to renovate the Blitchton store like Brooklet, adding about 4,000 square feet. The permitting process is underway.
But the Brooklet store remains the home base. The town, local customers, and Farmers & Merchants Bank in Brooklet have backed the business's growth, earning its loyalty, said Ken NeSmith.
"We have a very good bank that works with us," he said. "They have supported us for all these years."
Together, the three stores employ about 100 people. Some employees have been added in Brooklet to handle the increase in products and expected customers.
Built in 1994, expanded in 2004, and expanded again in 2014 - the store has established a pattern.
"It appears that way," Ken NeSmith said. "I hope we can do it again in 10 years. That would be great."
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.
Jack Hill – 1944-2020