Harris Carper celebrates 50 years in the grocery business
NEW CASTLE – When Harris Carper walked into the dining room at The Homeplace Restaurant one evening recently, he thought he was attending an employee appreciation dinner until some 70 guests yelled, “50 years.” Boy, was he surprised, according to his son, Mike Carper who now manages the Mick-or-Mack (IGA) store along with his brother Richard.
No doubt Harris Carper really was “sitting on top of the world” that evening when employees, family, friends, and the president and vice president from their supplier, MDI, gathered to celebrate Carper’s 50 years in the “people-pleasing grocery business” as Carper himself puts it.
And he was certainly good at that. Anybody who knows Harris Carper and has ever asked him how he is doing, his reply is always “Sitting on top of the world,” even if the sky was falling in, and during his early years in the grocery business it might have seemed that way to him at times.
Carper said he came on board the family-owned business in 1962 when he got out of the Army. When his dad, Gordon Carper, died in 1967 he and his mom, Helen, ran the business until he bought out her share in 1976. “I didn’t know which way to turn when dad died,” he explained. “Every morning I would say a prayer and ask God to help me do what I had to do, and I ended every day with a prayer of thanks.
Once he took over the business he said, “I was a one-man operation working 12 hours a day except for Sundays and a half-day on Wednesday.” He and his son Mike recalled the days Carper had to haul his own groceries from a warehouse in Roanoke all the way to Craig County.
“I had to bring everything I had in the store including dairy and meats over here in a box truck,” he said, with a laugh. “We always had a quarter of beef hanging in the cooler waiting to be cut into steaks and roasts.” Carper says he refers to those early years as “slave years” for him.
Eventually he had to take on help and hired Sherry Crowder and Robin Lipps, both of whom were instrumental in running the store at its location on Main Street. “Elizabeth McClannahan was another employee who was a great asset to us during those early years,” Carper said. “She was with us from the time dad opened the store in the 1950s until 1980. In fact most of our employees have been with us since day one except for the cashiers.” At the Main Street location there was only one checkout line. Today the store has five all of which have to be staffed with varying shifts during their busiest times.
In 1982 he doubled his space in the store which was located next to the courthouse on Main Street. “We went from 2,000 square feet to 3,000 square feet and wondered what in the world we were going to do with all that space,” he said.
For the customers it was a great improvement because shopping had previously been done in cramped quarters. Mike recalls the old wooden floors and the fact that you couldn’t even pass two grocery carts up an aisle because everything was so crowded.
By 1990 Mick-or-Mack was the only grocery store left in town. Lawrence’s, which had been the competition on the other side of Main Street for years, had closed down and Carper was busier than ever. His sons Mike and Richard joined the team. “Eventually we had such a booming business we again needed more space,” Harris said.
So in 1999 the Carpers opened Mick-or-Mack IGA in a brand new 18,000 square foot building on Market Street where it remains today. “When we moved into the new store we had then incorporated with the International Grocery Association (IGA),” Mike said. “They negotiate prices with wholesalers and can come up with much better prices than we can as a small independent dealer and they do the advertising.”
“Thanks to faithful customers and employees many of whom have been with us since day one, we continued to do really well,” Carper said, “And we expanded once again in 2007 bringing the store to 30,000 square feet.” With the added square footage the super market now had a deli/bakery, an independently run pharmacy, a florist and an independently run hair salon.
In keeping with the times they no longer cut all of their meats because they come pre-packaged from MDI, the same supplier they have always used because it saves time and money. “But even though we no longer have to cut all of our meat we still cut our own steaks, grind our own burger and still make our own sausage,” Carper said.
“Looking back there were some pretty difficult times,” Carper recalls, “but somehow I see only the good parts now.” At the dinner his sons presented him with a 50-year-pin which he proudly wears in his lapel and a “sitting on top of the world trophy” referring to his signature remark of 50 some years. Although the store is run by his two sons now he still goes there every day and greets customers and checks things out before they all go across the street to Subway to eat lunch.
His third son, Rob Carper holds that Subway franchise, making the business of food a family affair, any way you look at it.