Just yards outside Green’s Grocery, cars stream along Ronnie Green Parkway, a sign that growth and progress have come to Gainesville.
It’s a different scene inside the store that sits as a brick reminder of a different era. With its torn floors and lack of bright lights and fresh paint, Green’s simply hasn’t changed much since it was built in 1950.
Where: 971 Riverside Drive, Gainesville
But customers don’t seem to mind — nor does owner Ed Waller.
“It’s just a beaten-up old building, but it works,” he said. “It’s got a lot of character.”
It certainly doesn’t have the size or feel of big-name grocery stores scattered around Gainesville, including those fairly close by.
“When we got the Small Business of the Year award, they got the ‘small’ part right,” Waller said, referring to a plaque Waller received at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s annual gala May 17.
He also got some high praise at the event from the award presenter, Northeast Georgia Health System CEO Carol Burrell.
Since taking over the business in 1995, Waller has “strived to keep Green’s basic business strategy — take care of each customer that walks through the door, offer specialized services and maintain the Green’s Legacy,” Burrell said.
“Green’s is one of the last truly independently owned grocery stores left in existence. Ed says he’s as ‘local as it gets,’ and his grocery store is too.”
Frank and Lillie Mae Green founded Green’s Grocery and while they built the business, they also were well-known for their philanthropy. In 2001, they gave a $4 million gift for what became the Ronnie Green Heart Center at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. It was named after their son Ronnie, who also worked in the business.
Frank Green died in 2008. Lillie Mae Green died in March.
Waller, a Gainesville native, grew up going to the store and, as a teenager, in 1978, started working as a bagboy.
He still rings up and bags groceries. In a visit to the store last week, he was bagging a customer’s homemade cake — one of the many foods the store is known for.
After what he describes as an “extensive” college career at what is now University of North Georgia in Oakwood and Dahlonega, he ended up “in a dead-end job selling merchant accounts for credit card companies.”
One day, his father went into the store and, while shopping, overheard Frank Green say he was interested in selling the store.
Waller’s father asked him about it, and a deal was quickly struck.
Waller looks back at those days in amazement.
“It was like, ‘Sure, I’ll buy it. I’ve got zero experience, except bagboy for two summers,’” Waller said. “I didn’t know how to run a grocery store — still don’t, really.”
The store “has evolved into what it has become — in terms of cooking prepared foods,” Waller said. “I was cooking on a Big Green Egg (grill) just to show what a Green Egg could do, and all of the sudden, it blew up and we were selling everything we were cooking on it.
“It’s turned into a monster.”
The store is known for its steak cuts and locally made and freshly prepared foods, including chicken salad, casseroles, bottles of muscadine barbecue sauce, twice-baked potatoes, and cakes and breads. Handcrafted beers from local breweries, including Gainesville’s Left Nut Brewery, fill a row of coolers and shelves.
Wines also take up another aisle and are mostly not local, except for a selection of fruit and berry wines from Sweet Acre Farms Winery in Alto.
Many customers travel long distances, while other loyalists are longtime locals, such as Dianne Weaver.
“The chicken salad is the best,” said the Gainesville native. “And the people who work here are absolutely amazing. They are so friendly and family-oriented. Everybody knows each other here.”
Murrayville resident Jane White, picking up a couple of cakes for a get-together at her house, said she occasionally picks up grilling foods from the store.
Green’s is “a great emergency meal” option, she said.
Looking ahead, the store figures to remain an institution — in name, as well as location.
“We’ve tried to move numerous times just to better our building,” but plans haven’t worked out, for various reasons. One of those times was in 2007, when Waller was eyeing a move down Thompson Bridge Road.
“What happened in 2007? The whole market just went awry,” Waller said, speaking of the Great Recession.
He was another nearby building and “just got nervous,” he said. “(Moving) is a big step.”
Waller is looking to remodel the existing building, however.
“We’re maybe going to put in a kitchen,” he said. “We need it. We’re just out of space.”
Waller realizes he needs to watch how much work he does. It’s a balancing act between meeting customer demands and retaining the building’s not-so-modern look.
But still, he’s happy how things have gone.
“It’s been an incredible business, I’ll tell you that,” Waller said.
“I think it’s the quality of the food that has made the difference. It’s a local phenomenon. If they like it, they’ll keep coming — and they do.”