Layden’s Grocery Store: A Fixture for Decades
Doing things the old-fashioned way in era of big box stores
BELVIDERE — The Layden’s Grocery Store has been in business in the same location for more than 65 years, serving the community and surrounding counties. But it is much more than a local business. Because of who they are, what they are and the scope of their customer base. We sought to provide this article and explain the details about the growth of the business and the people behind the name.
Everyone in northeastern North Carolina knows about the Layden’s Grocery Store and the charm of the building and the friendliness of its people. But many do not know just how far their business reach extends and the basic philosophy behind the business owners and their employees.
When you drive up to the building, you see a wooden structure which is reminiscent of yesteryear and nostalgic memories of days gone by, when the local grocery store was a magnet for people to meet one another, talk about old times, and purchase local meat and produce. In the old days, grocery stores of this type slaughtered and dressed the meat products that were sold, as well as preparing their own sausage and curing their own hams.
Those activities are no longer part of the modern day grocery store at any level, but Layden’s maintains as many of those old traditions as they can while meeting the regulatory requirements of the present day. As Doug Layden puts it, his business, is a Grocery Store with a full-fledged Butcher Shop, which is reminiscent of years gone by.
So how do they do they compete with the Big Box Stores and thrive in the process?
The building was originally constructed by Josiah Nicolson in 1860. It was owned and operated by Tim Perry until being purchased in 1952 by Charles Edward Layden, father of current owner Doug Layden. The building was vacant at the time that it was purchased by Charles, who acquired this building and the house next door as their homestead, all for $3200. Charles remodeled the building to make it into a supermarket. To this day, the building still has the original wood floors and original sales counter with very few non-basic improvements, which add to the charm and nostalgia.
In the corner of the store between the cash register and the meat department is a table and chairs where old-timers can come in and sit down, have a cup of coffee and chat about all sorts and manner of things. When they get up others will come and sit down and do the same thing. When you are inside this building, you cannot help but have thoughts of when you were a child growing up in the South when times were more difficult but life was simpler.
Charles took his son Doug under his wing and taught him all that he knew about how to run a grocery business. Now that Doug is older, he is preparing his son Charlie to take over. Charles turned over the day to day responsibilities, working for Doug and teaching him the operational details so that he followed his father’s footsteps. Now, that Doug is 61 years of age, he has been grooming his eldest son, Charlie to do the same thing and will work for Charlie teaching him in the same manner as before. This is clearly a family business that is operated in the finest traditions of fathers and sons, for what will soon be three generations.
In years past, Charlie worked for Harris Teeter in their meat department learning the new technologies and he went to school to learn the new cuts, eventually returning to the family business, better prepared in the butcher shop operations that had been the case with his father’s generation.
Doug has two sons, Charlie and Bobby in the meat department as well as a daughter that helps out and of course his wife, who works in the school system by day then comes to the store in the afternoons, to take care of the books. In addition, there are five non-family members who have worked in this business for years and are thought of by Doug and his family as extensions of the family.
Another member of the family, Doug’s sister lived in Tennessee and worked in the entertainment industry for celebrities such as Dolly Parton and Trace Adkins. But when she retired, she left Tennessee and came back home. The rest of the family decided that she was the perfect person to stay in the family homestead next door after their mom and dad passed away.
Over the years, Doug has remodeled the meat department twice in order to “keep up with the times.” They have installed a big walk-in 16 X 20 refrigeration unit plus an 8 x 12 freezer unit. At one time, in the past, they had a slaughterhouse down the road from the store, but keeping up with regulations was very demanding so they sold that business and established relationships with suppliers of quality meat products which they keep in the refrigeration unit and freezer until needed to supply a customer’s order.
All of their beef is supplied by a mid-western U.S. supply house. All of their pork products are purchased locally. They attempt by all means possible to purchase produce and everything else that they sell in the store from local suppliers, in season. They make all their own sausage, by hand, and they cure their own hams, as no one really does that anymore. The hams require a 7-9 week curing process. The ham stays in salt for 7 weeks then they wash them off and let them dry for one week then they smoke them for 4 to 5 days to get them to the color that they want.
When Doug was learning the business from his father, he was told, and never forgot, that cleanliness is the key to success. Therefore, they clean the store constantly with his father’s words in mind. Besides cleanliness, customer service is next in line with price way down on the customer’s list of preferences.
His father operated the business on a word of mouth basis believing that if you purchased a good product and you enjoyed it that you would tell your friends and you would grow your customer base that way. Doug believes that this is true, but he also believes that advertising and getting your name known in a broad geographic area is the way that you compete with the big stores. He too believes in word-of-mouth believing that if you sell someone a good steak, at a reasonable price, people will come back. He states that he could sell a cheaper steak that you would chew on all night, but you would not return.
Many times, his supplier will come in with specials that they are offering at that particular time at a discounted price. If he can buy a quantity of product from that supplier and save money in the process, he will pass the savings along to his customers. That is what they do with their meat packages on signs that hang from the ceiling above the meat department. They have a variety of products which they package together with pork, chicken, hamburger and other items, and sell them together which gives the customer a savings over the individual cost while also moving these other products and making their customers aware of the quality that they sell. There are times when a customer may come in wanting a cut of meat that they cannot provide for a variety of reasons.
But they make alternative suggestions and almost always the customer comes back to tell them saying how much they enjoyed the alternative. Again, customer service and individual attention are a key element in the success of this business. If you want your pork chops cut really thin, they can do that or they can cut them as thick could you want. As Doug puts it, he almost never misses a sale.
Over the years competitors have come and gone. First, it was Colonial Stores and A&P and “we had to adjust,” recalls Doug. Now they are in competition with Food Lion and Farm Fresh and still succeeding.
Doug and his family are still here providing the same quality service and products that have served them very well over the decades. At one point, his sausage was sold in every restaurant from Perquimans County to Manteo and the Outer Banks. His meats are sold to customers from Chesapeake, Portsmouth and on into Williamsburg and all the way up to Richmond. When he had his slaughter business, he had customers all the way up into Richmond, so many of the customers from there drive down to Perquimans County to stock up and drive back. Many of his customers come to the local area from as far away as California to visit family in the area and when they do, they come by and purchase a ham to take home with them. People, who come to the area from New York and New Jersey, also to visit family, will come by his store and stock up heavily and drive, back home.
One of Doug’s growing businesses is gift baskets. They started out in the first year with 10 to 15 sales at Christmas time and now this past year, their sales have exceeded 1000 for this item alone. He purchases the cheese and they come in boxes which he realized could be converted for this purpose. So he puts cheese, ham and a variety of other items in these baskets which people like to give as Christmas gifts.
The cheese is Wisconsin cheddar, which they age in a heat room then flipping it back and forth so that the juices will flow until it gets to the taste that they want. There is no control over this product and there are no two cheeses that are exactly alike because of so many variables. But that seems to be what people like and why it sells so well.
Doug has been approached by various people wanting to buy him out, over the years. But he rejects all of these suggestions because he is a man of tradition and he wants to keep the tradition of his family business going for years to come. In time, he hopes that Charlie passes the business to a fourth-generation.
As Doug puts it, family and tradition are very important to him.
Each year, they have a “Belvidere Day “that involves his entire family as well as the various neighbors around the area. Among the many activities that are part of this celebration, they give away prizes every 15 minutes. To qualify for the prize, the recipient merely has to answer a question about the Layden family or the Belvidere Community. Some questions are biblical and some are about the history of the county. If they are right, they get a prize. Last year, over 1000 people attended the celebration and he hopes to double that this year.
The Layden family is very close knit and they do lots of things together as a group. That sense of family and heritage is important to them, which is why they are as successful. They are people in business and leaders of their community, supporting the local economy and being supported by the neighbors at the same time.