An Open Letter to Publix on the Closing of Western Supermarkets

When I found out local Birmingham grocery Western Supermarkets was closing, I was pretty sad — a lot more sad than I would’ve been about another grocery closing. I don’t like when local stores close in general, and I have a lot of good memories involving Western in particular.

But the news that Western would be turned into Publix made it less of a blow. From everything I’ve read and researched, Publix treats its staff very, very well. This means a lot to me, and it’s why I’ve felt comfortable splitting my shopping between Western and Publix in the past few years. I was also happy to hear that Western employees would have the opportunity to interview for new jobs with Publix.

And that’s the reason for this blog — it’s a letter of recommendation of sorts from a Western customer (I live in the neighborhood) for their employees, and a hope that the decision to prioritize hiring Western’s employees is more than just lip service, and that not just some, but most of Western’s employees are kept on if they want to stay.

Western prioritizes customer service, and that’s obvious every time you walk in the store. I’m greeted not like a customer, but like a neighbor and a friend — and it’s that attitude that keeps me as a customer. I’m asked what I’m looking for before I even process that I need something, but in a way that’s helpful without being overbearing. At checkout, people greet me with recognition, tell me I look like Zooey Deschanel (thanks, by the way), and ask about what I’m doing now that I’ve moved on from owning Church Street Coffee & Books, a bookstore I started in another village in Mountain Brook. Every staff member I’ve encountered there has been exemplary.

As a cofounder and previous owner of a Mountain Brook business, I’ll also share a secret — Mountain Brook customers prioritize loyalty, and that definitely extends to service workers. If Publix keeps on the staff of the neighborhood Western, Mountain Brook customers will absolutely know it and appreciate it. This is a place that values a neighborhood atmosphere, including old fashioned customs like smiling and saying hello. It’s a place where people know the names and the lives of the people who make them coffee and cut their hair and carry their groceries. At Church Street Coffee & Books, my cofounder and I knew this; we’d both worked in Mountain Brook for about a decade apiece before opening our store, he as manager of the Crestline Starbucks, and me as a barista and as manager of Jonathan Benton, Bookseller (which was in the recently bulldozed strip that also housed the old Western). When we opened our shop, we hired as many people as possible from our other Mountain Brook businesses to come work with us — and the neighborhood remembered. Because of that, the neighborhood rewarded us with their business. Keeping the staff of Western is the right thing to do. But I also believe keeping the staff of Western will make you more profitable.

I will miss so much about Western. I’ll miss the coffee bar and grabbing a biscuit at the breakfast bar. I’ll definitely miss the upstairs study area, where I’ve spent hours writing (along with half of Mountain Brook high school … and their tutors). But mostly, I’ll miss feeling like I’m in my hometown (even though I’m not) when I walk into Western. I’ll miss the people. And if anyone can give them a new work home where they can thrive and that can provide some of that same feeling, I think it’s Publix. As a customer of both Western and Publix, I hope you do just that.

Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist, a book about buying from locally owned stores and cofounder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Currently, she works as Communications Director at Infomedia, a web development company in Birmingham, Alabama. Find her as @crollwagen on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and most other social media platforms.

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