On the afternoon of Dec. 3, 1982, Robert Clay operated two Town & Country supermarkets in Hardy, Ark., a tiny hamlet along the banks of the Spring River. By the following morning, both stores had been destroyed–one by a tornado, the other by a flash flood. It was not a pleasant night.
“We had not taken any precautions because we weren’t expecting bad weather,” says Clay, who owns 13 supermarkets operating under the names Town & Country, Price Chopper and New Way Food in north central Arkansas.
When the tornado struck north of town at about 6 p.m., 12 people were in one of the stores. The store manager, who as a resident of the tornado-prone Arkansas hills knew what to do, had everyone huddle behind some cases in the back, shielding them from the storm’s fury and the collapsing store.
When the winds hit, the roof was blown off, most of it landing more than 50 feet away. Heavy rain poured into the store, leaving about 2 inches of water behind. The health department condemned the store’s entire stock. Only about 10% of the fixtures could be salvaged.
Late that night, as Clay digested the tragic news, he received another telephone call. Water had just come crashing through the front windows of his other store in town, a 12,000-footer about five miles away from the unit struck by the tornado. Even though this supermarket was located one-fourth of a mile from the river, atop a 100-year flood plain, the water in the store rose to more than 7 feet before it began to recede.
The tornado-ravaged store was fully insured, but Clay could not convince the owners of the plaza to rebuild. The flooded store was a different story, however.
A Drive Through Cabot
As soon as the water receded, Clay and his crew began clearing out the store. He estimates that at least 2 inches of river sludge covered the floor and the fixtures. “That was the most smelly substance that you could imagine,” he says.
All merchandise was removed and dumped. The crew and 20 volunteers from town took out shovels and began digging out the mud. Most of the equipment had to be discarded.
“It’s much easier to build a new store than to clean one up after it’s full of river water,” Clay says. The people in the store worked feverishly, putting in 18 to 20 hours of work a day. After all the unsalvageable merchandise was removed, the walls were steam cleaned again and again. The back-breaking labor continued for six weeks.
By mid-January, the store was ready to reopen. Local residents, who had been traveling at least 10 miles to shop, flocked back to the Town & Country store, which, due to the closing of its sister store, was now recording a volume well above its previous level.
Business was too brisk for the 12,000-square-foot conventional unit to handle, so Clay decided to open a larger store across the street. He built a 25,000-square-foot warehouse market, under the Price Chopper name. Volume at the new store is as strong as it was at his two stores combined before the disaster. (The flooded store is now being operated as a conventional supermarket by another independent grocer.)
“We would not have built the new store if the tornado had not hit town,” says Clay. “Both Town & Country units were producing profits.” But Clay has found the silver lining within the cloud. After all, the Price Chopper may have roughly the same square footage as the two smaller and older stores, but it also has reduced payroll percentages and other efficiencies due to the warehouse format.
What did Clay learn from the double dose of disaster? “Mother Nature can really put the fear of God in you. But no matter what happens, you should never give up. You should always try to do the best that you can with the cards that are presented to you,” Clay says.
A Blessing in Disguise
When 140-mile-an-hour winds brought the near destruction of King’s Super Valu in July 1983, Bill King probably never imagined he’d feel lucky about the whole thing. But he has his reasons to feel lucky today.
Forty people were inside the store when the winds came, yet no one was hurt. Also, his store suffered less damage than those of other retailers in the four-year-old Champlin Plaza because some curious employees left the back door open before the storm hit. And since the store reopened with a new decor package and merchandising approach, sales have jumped by more than 30%.
“I wouldn’t say this if anyone had been injured, but we are in better shape today than before the windstorm,” says King, who manages the store, which is owned by his father, Lyle.
“I was driving up toward the store when I heard a report on the radio that the Champlin Plaza had been demolished,” recalls King. “It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life.” Although much of the plaza was completely destroyed, King’s Super Valu was spared somewhat, thanks to the curiosity of some weather-watching employees.
“Some people in the backroom had opened the receiving door to look outside because the sky was turning scary colors,” King says. At the instant the door was opened, the winds hit the opposite side of the mall, completely destroying a drugstore and traveling down the front of the mall with the force of a bomb blast. Roofs were torn off stores, and walls were blown down. The open door in the Super Valu gave the wind an outlet, saving the store’s back wall.
The employees standing by the back door were lifted 20 feet in the air and tossed against the coolers. As the roof started to cave in, everyone in the store dived for the floor. “The ceiling tiles were flying around like deadly Frisbees,” says King. Miraculously, nobody within the supermarket was seriously injured. A half dozen cars in the parking lot were totaled, however.
Within hours, the account executive and policy claims manager from Risk Planners, Super Valu’s insurance subsidiary, were on the scene. Several field counselors from the wholesaler also arrived, as did the president of the Minneapolis division. “To see the division president there in his street clothes ready to go to work if needed really impressed me,” says King.
The cleanup began as soon as the damage was surveyed. Frozen food was hauled out first, and placed in a Super Valu truck. Even though it was July, none of the food had thawed, allowing the insurance company to sell it to a salvage firm. “As soon as the storm hit, every food product we had belonged to the insurance company,” King says. The two-store independent’s total losses from the disaster amounted to $325,000, all of which was covered by Risk Planners.
The six scanners and the store computers, which were removed immediately and placed under fans, were about the only equipment not heavily damaged. The insurance people and Lyle King set July 31, four weeks from the date of the storm, as the target for the reopening.
Faced with the need to put the store back together, the Kings decided to refashion its image and decor. “When we opened the store four years ago, we went with rich looking wallpaper and other decor touches that made the store look fancy. It seemed wise at the time, but in the long run the decor was creating a high-price image. Expensive decor doesn’t really affect your pricing, but a lot of consumers think it does,” King says.
A simpler looking decor and brighter lighting created a different image for the market. Although the pricing structure is the same as it was before the storm, consumers perceive the store to be lower-priced. The price perception of local consumers is particularly important because King’s Super Valu sits within several miles of two Cub Food stores and two other warehouse markets.
Cabot Tornado 1976
King has also laid the plans to deal with any future storms. Since the store is located in a strip of land known locally as “tornado alley,” near the upper Mississippi River, King’s management has had several meetings to discuss how to prepare for severe weather. “The safest place seems to be inside the coolers and freezers, which sustained little damage. That’s where employees and customers should go when severe weather is approaching,” King says.
You’ve Gotta Have Heart
On a may morning in 1983, Guy Fisher returned home to begin his recovery from bypass surgery. When he arrived home, he learned that one of his two IGA stores had suffered a serious fire the night before.
“A bypass operation and a fire within the same week is tough,” says Fishers, who operates Fisher IGA supermarkets in Cherry Valley and Wynne, Ark. “I’m thankful that I have some able sons plus dedicated employees to help me. I just let them take care of everything having to do with the fire because my doctor said that I should not get involved.”
The fire began in an oven in the meat department at about midnight. Fortunately, at 4 a.m., the head checker happened to pass by the store and noticed smoke coming out of the roof. She went in, discovered the fire and called the fire department. They had the flames out within 30 minutes.
The fire never traveled more than 30 feet from the oven, but smoke spread throughout the store. All merchandise was smoke damaged and had to either be dumped or sold to a salvage company. The total damage amounted to $250,000, but the entire amount was paid by Fisher’s insurance policy through Wetterau, his wholesaler.
When Fisher realized that everything in the market would have to be removed for steam cleaning, he decided to make changes that he had wanted to implement since acquiring the store two years before. “It would have been too costly to remodel the store from scratch,” he says, “but since everything had to be removed anyway, we decided to take advantage of the situation.”
While the employees were breaking down and cleaning the equipment, all of which was smoke damaged, but none of which was destroyed, Fisher and his key people planned changes. The dairy cooler and freezer were moved outside, allowing 15 feet of backroom space to be added to the selling area. Total square footage was expanded from 7,200 to 7,500 square feet.
By moving the meat department along the rear wall back by 15 feet, Fisher was able to give customers more space to shop the case. He added 17 feet to the dairy case and 20 feet to frozens, and installed new checkouts. The extra space allowed him to have a greater selection and to offer a more comfortable shopping atmosphere.
Since then, the store and its owner have recuperated just fine. The supermarket reopened in August, four months after the fire, and sales have been strong considering Cherry Valley’s population of 500. Fisher is back on the job full time and feeling fine.