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Owners aren`t giving up on neighborhoods

Grocery independents stick it out

MERIDIAN — It would be easy for Larry Mazingo to be intimidated by his surroundings.

Mazingo is owner of Mazingo’s Grocery just south of Interstate 20-59 on heavily traveled Mississippi 19 in Meridian. His 6,000-square-foot store lies in the morning shadows cast by a hill on which sits the super retailer, Wal-Mart, while afternoon shadows are cast by another hill occupied by the huge Bonita Lakes Shopping Mall. But all that traffic means opportunity to Mazingo, the unintimidated entrepreneur.

About a mile away in the heart of a predominantly African-American neighborhood there’s Hudnall’s Food Store, operated by Jimmy Lee, another unintimidated entrepreneur.

They could be intimidated, too, by all the turmoil among the mega-grocery chains. Three new Winn-Dixie Marketplaces have been built in Meridian in the past 18 months. Then there are the mergers, buy-outs and consolidations on the national scene. One seasoned observer has predicted that within five years, there will probably be only three big national grocery chains, plus Wal-Mart.

All of that raises the question, how does a neighborhood grocery store survive in what has been described as one of the nation’s fastest-changing retail markets? Says Hudnall’s Jimmy Lee, “I wonder about that everyday.”

The similarities in Mazingo and Lee’s business world seem to outnumber the differences. Both graduated from Meridian High — Mazingo in ‘59 and Lee in ‘61 — and both are college graduates — Mazingo from Mississippi State and Lee from Ole Miss. Family circumstances brought them into the business — Mazingo was born into it with his father starting a neighborhood grocery store in 1937 while Lee married Sarah, Sam Hudnall’s daughter. Sam had been running a Meridian grocery since 1960.

Their present store locations came about within a year of each other — Mazingo’s in ‘71 and Hudnall’s in ‘72. Both have family involvement — Lee’s wife works at the store four days a week and Mazingo’s son, Dennis, is running the newly opened garden shop. And while Mazingo’s mother may have retired last December, it’s obvious from a brief mother-son conversation about the credit status of one of their customers that she’s staying in touch. She still owns the building and 25% of the corporation.

And Mazingo and Lee stay in touch with each other, too. “Larry’s a helluva nice guy. We kinda stick together — we’re the last of the independents and we have the same basic problems. I’m very honest with him and he knows what I’m doing and I know what he’s doing,” Lee said.

But there are changes and differences. Mazingo’s market has changed from a Bonita market (the adjacent community) primarily southward to customers as far down Highway 19 as west Alabama. Hudnall’s market has remained mainly in the same neighborhood — 95% of his customers are African-American. Lee is the first to say that they are much more mobile — and price-conscious — than in the past.

Both have an additional store, but in entirely different type markets. Hudnall’s Collinsville operation on Mississippi 19 caters to the burgeoning up-scale residential developments nine miles north of Meridian. It’s operated by Wally Hudnall, Lee’s brother-in-law. The store was opened three years ago and at 10,000 square feet is twice the size of Lee’s facility.

Lee remembers when he and Wally ran the Meridian operation together and could take off at will and didn’t owe anybody, “…but we decided we wanted to chase the American dream (by opening the new store). Now we owe a million dollars and hadn’t got any time off. We’ve had some scary moments, but that’s the fastest growing area in Lauderdale county and that store’s a winner.”

Mazingo’s M&B Grocery is 7,500 square feet in the heart of one of Meridian’s changing neighborhoods. He bought it in 1987 from the Ivan Burnett family. “It (Burnett’s) catered to the ‘silk stocking trade’ and had been closed about three years,” Mazingo recalls. “The first two years were real, real tough, but we changed our marketing strategy to meet the demographic changes, and now it’s a real winner for us — a much bigger operation than this (the parent store).”

Like most retail operations today, all of their records are on computers and all of the stores except Mazingo’s have price scanners and video monitors, the latter to cut down on theft. Both Mazingo and Lee know there are still limited theft problems. “We have it, but you never know how big it is,” Lee said.

Mazingo’s still does about 20% of its business on credit at his store (none at M&B) which he describes as a leftover from when his parents owned the operation. “It gets smaller every year,” Mazingo said with satisfaction.

Aside from credit and “knowing his customers,” Larry Mazingo believes that his major advantage over the “big boys” is his meat department. “Traditionally, we will undersell (them) in produce and our strong suit has always been our meat department. A lot of the chain stores will run 17-21% in meat and we will run 25-30% here and 45-50% in the other store.”

Lee agrees with that analysis — and jokes that he and Mazingo “ran Kroger out of town” (Kroger closed a Meridian operation about 10 years ago) — but said his advantage is in “service, quality and reasonable prices. We carry what they want and they know it.”

Henry Fulcher has been with Winn-Dixie for more than 40 years and is manager of the newest Marketplace at a major north Meridian intersection. He thinks it’s good to still have the “Pop’s and Mom’s” stores. “It does make the giants of the business keep in touch with the customer,” said Fulcher, who has a reputation for knowing the names of about 50% of his customers.

As for the future of the neighborhood operation, neither Lee nor Mazingo show any sign of intimidation by the giants. Jimmy Lee said, “If we can just find our niche and stay in it, where people can walk in and cash a check without having to pull out five pieces of identification. I don’t ask that they give me all their business, just a little portion of it, we’ll do fine.”

“We will remain a viable force if we maintain our plant and equipment and hook up with a good wholesale supplier,” Mazingo said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at lanjohnson@aol.com or mbj@msbusiness.com.

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