Photos by Mark Steele
Roberts family goes all in to make new midtown Corner Market location an experience for local grocery shoppers.
When the late H. David “Doc” Roberts opened his family’s first grocery store 50 years ago, it’s hard to believe he could have imagined the company’s 50,000 square foot flagship Corner Market store that recently opened in midtown Hattiesburg.
From fresh sushi and a full-service seafood counter to an enormous salad bar and an entire department dedicated to fresh florals, the store may look nothing like those early grocery stores owned and operated by Roberts and his wife, Carolyn, and their business partner, Bob Martin, but the family’s commitment to providing quality groceries for a fair price remains at the core of its success.
“It’s funny how it works,” said Mike Sowden, Corner Market’s chief operating officer. “I suppose sometimes the more things change, the more they remain the same.”
And things have certainly changed from that first Roberts family-owned Sunflower grocery store on West Pine Street.
Now under the watch of third-generation grocer and company president David Roberts, nearly half of the company’s new location is dedicated to perishable items – meats, dairy, and fresh produce – including fresh seafood, an expanded deli department, a bakery, and a counter dedicated to fresh cut fruit.
“To have so much space dedicated to perishable items would have been unheard of even as recently as 10 to 15 years ago,” said Roberts. “The entire grocery store industry is changing and we’re fortunate to be in a position to stay on top of those trends.”
In many ways, the new store has been a work in progress for the last several years, said Roberts.
“The design phase alone took two years,” he said. “We knew we had to hit it out of the park and I think that’s what we have done. This store will help shape the future of this company.”
Sowden, who joined the Roberts team in 2002, spent months studying the country’s best grocery stores and drawing the best ideas from each.
“We believe this is the future,” he said. Consumers are changing the way they shop and we are changing right along with them.”
Sowden said most people don’t come into a grocery store with a traditional list and shop for an entire week of meals like they used to do. Instead, it’s often a case of them making purchases for a single meal or even just a few days.
“Our goal from the very beginning has been to make this Corner Market store a supermarket for everybody,” he said. “A store for people from all walks of life including those on restricted medical diets.”
To achieve that goal, Roberts said his team spends equal amount of time filling shelves with hard-to-find premium ingredients as well as affordable food items.
“If you want to buy a ‘big basket’ and get good prices, we have an aggressive private label stock of items that is affordable for any budget. But at the same time, if you want to indulge in organic and premium food items, we have those, too.”
Roberts admits that in the past, the Corner Market brand has been pigeonholed by some as being ‘overpriced’ for some budgets, but he said a side-by-side comparison proves otherwise.
“It’s not just lip service, “ he said. “Each and every week, we compare our prices to other grocery stores throughout the region – including the discount stores – and I’m here to tell you that our prices are very, very competitive.”
“Are we always going to be the cheapest place in town?” asked Sowden. “No, but often times we absolutely are.”
In addition to offering competitive pricing, Sowden said the customer service offered at Corner Market also has a value that shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Customer service is hands down our number one priority,” he said. “You won’t wait in line here. You’ll be treated with respect and hopefully we will make your shopping experience more enjoyable.”
Roberts said their goal was to hire 100 new employees to help staff the new store, which is nearly 20,000 square feet larger than the store that was located on the opposite end of the shopping center.
“We have been incredibly selective in our hiring process and hopefully shoppers will notice that when they walk through our doors. It doesn’t matter how nice and shiny everything is. If we can’t provide that ‘service with a smile’ that shoppers want, then they won’t come back.”
For Sowden, he has made it a priority to remind the staff that the future of the company is in their hands.
“We poured a lot of time and money into this project, but that last touch – the last interaction our customers have – is what they’re going to remember the most. We have an important legacy to uphold,” he said. “Customer service has been a priority of the Roberts family from the very beginning and we’re going to continue to focus on that as we move forward. ”
As the third generation of the family to lead the business, David said he had much to learn from his father, Forrest, as well as his grandfather.
“Believe it or not, getting employees to engage with the customer is more difficult than it sounds, “ he said. “Despite the advent and popularity of social media, the world is getting less and less social. Our staff has to overcome that on a daily basis.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of bells and whistles in the new store to assist with that effort – including an expanded in-store kitchen that serves up fresh meals throughout the day – beginning with eggs, biscuits and gravy, bacon, sausage, and other hot items for breakfast.
“We realize people are busy and don’t always have time to prepare their own meals,” said Sowden. “Particularly while they’re working during the week. So we make a point to offer a number of hot and cold ‘grab and go’ items for breakfast, lunch, and even dinner.”
Made fresh daily, meal offerings include everything from spaghetti and meatballs to fried pork chops and also healthy options like a full-service salad bar, daily soup offerings, and fresh sushi made right in the store.
An extensive bakery area offers fresh-baked bread, cookies, cakes, and other desserts.
An expanded floral department offers fresh-cut flowers shipped in daily with in-store floral designers ready to create bouquets for any occasion.
A new fresh-cut fruit counter offers – you guessed it – ready-to-eat fresh-cut fruit.
In the back of the store, a separate seafood counter serves up a variety of fresh seafood items shipped in daily from the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Right next to it is a station dedicated to dry-aged beef, something not offered anywhere else in the region.
The store also has a large selection of bulk and pre-packaged snack foods including chocolate candies, roasted nuts, dried fruits and vegetables, and other items.
With extra-wide aisles measuring more than eight feet across, there’s plenty of room for shoppers to navigate through the store without stepping over one another or having to dodge store employees stocking the shelves, which now include an increased number of locally-grown and locally-manufactured items.
“We have always tried to support our local vendors and that’s something we’re proud to do even more of in this new store,” said Roberts. “That’s something I believe my grandfather would be exceptionally proud of.”
Local restaurateur Robert St. John, who has been a longtime friend – and supporter – of the Roberts family, is convinced the Pine Belt needs more people like them.
“I know this family well,” he said. “and I know the dedication that they have always had for Hattiesburg, Southern Miss, area high schools, and many local businesses and institutions here. For more than 50 years they have put money back into the community and this latest venture is just the most recent example of those efforts.”
With a half-century of tradition to build upon, Roberts said the family is committed to continuing the work his grandfather began and he said this latest investment is just the beginning.
“We are overwhelmed at the support we have seen thus far,” he said. “But we know we have more work to do and we’re fortunate to be able to live and work right here in Hattiesburg where it all started.”
Gustafson is the editor/publisher of Signature Magazine. In his native Oklahoma, he grew up in a community with three competing grocery stores including Dillons, Safeway, and Horner’s Food Mart.