Published On Jun 08, 2017 in
Grocery and Leadership & Development
Long before I came to work at PECO and got involved in the grocery-anchored shopping business, my first paid job was actually at the local grocery store, Coultrap’s, in my hometown near Cadiz, Ohio (birthplace of Clark Gable). Coultrap’s called itself “The World’s Most Unusual Store.”
I grew up in a small farming community working on my family farm alongside my father and grandfather. On Sundays I ushered at our community church, Pleasant Valley United Methodist, and got to know the owner of our local grocery store, Mr. Coultrap. Mr. Coultrap would always slide in the back pew late, in his Sunday finest which included dress shoes and white gym socks. During the collection he would pull out a wad of bills held together with a rubber band and hand over the most money. Church was the only time I ever saw him without an unlit cigar in his mouth. As I got to know him, I got up the nerve to ask for a summer job. His response was, “You’ll have to talk to Margaret.”
Margaret, Mrs. Coultrap, was a former school teacher and girls’ basketball coach. She stood five feet tall, wore cotton dresses with a white apron, high top Converse sneakers with support hose rolled up knee-high, and ran the store with an iron fist. She was also an enterprising business woman who had overseen the expansion of the store to include a restaurant, clothing, a tire and auto shop, and hardware.
Once Mrs. Coultrap had appraised my sports stats, she agreed to put me on trial at the store, starting in the meat shop which had a complete butcher shop. The meat shop was one of the busiest sections of the store, especially in the summer due to nearby Tappan Lake that would draw shoppers. I reported on a Sunday night after store close with the task of cleaning the butcher shop. Weekends were the busiest days at the store, and it showed as I looked around and saw the heaping mess of metal trays, grinders, blades, and knives. Mrs. Coultrap instructed me to clean it all – that she wanted it, “spic ‘n span, I don’t want to see any blood or fat anywhere.”
Over the next few months as I cleaned the meat shop nightly, Mrs. Coultrap taught me my first life lesson about the grocery industry, that good quality meat and cleanliness in the grocery store were critical to its success. (I also learned that I loved to disinfect and degrease, qualities my wife appreciates today!)
After Mrs. Coultrap determined I had mastered the meat shop, she moved me over to the checkout, where I rang up and bagged groceries. The second life lesson she taught me was the value of customer service – serving customers with a smile, being helpful, taking groceries out to the car without accepting tips, and of course being mindful not to crack the eggs and squash the bread while bagging.
The most memorable life lesson I learned from Mrs. Coultrap is especially meaningful. In the restaurant inside the store, Coultrap’s would sell a nickel sandwich of cheese, Dutch loaf or bologna with free coffee. Some of the people in the community with lesser means would go there to enjoy these sandwiches. One day I was brave enough to ask Mrs. Coultrap why she continued to sell these sandwiches when she could be filling the restaurant with higher paying customers. I’ll never forget her answer. She pushed her glasses further down her nose, looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “We started doing this during the Depression to take care of our neighbors, and we still take care of our neighbors.”
In addition to my mother, wife, and daughter, Mrs. Coultrap remains one of the most influential women in my life. The pride she took in the store, serving its customers and our local farm community was all about doing the right thing. That lesson and the other lessons she shared with me – cleanliness, customer service and taking care of our neighbors – go beyond the grocery checkout counter.