In the fall of 2013, 29 iconic Pigs tucked their curly tails and left the South forever. Piggly Wiggly Carolina had sold most of its stores in South Carolina and Georgia to other regional grocers, and some loyal Lowcountry shoppers worried about what would become of their favorite supermarket.
"As a self-proclaimed localist, this broke my heart," wrote Jamee Haley, executive director of Lowcountry Local First, in a guest column for the City Paper. Piggly Wiggly, which billed itself as "Local Since Forever," had worked with LLF to put local produce and products on its shelves. What would happen under new ownership?
Bi-Lo reportedly picked up 22 Piggly Wiggly stores for about $35 million, while Harris Teeter bought seven stores in the Charleston area for an undisclosed price. Julianne Roberts, a spokesperson for Bi-Lo parent company Bi-Lo Holdings, says the company "recognized the value of the Piggly Wiggly brand." All store-level employees in good standing were invited to stay onboard as their locations became Bi-Los.
"We made an effort to consider the best features of Piggly Wiggly and the best features of Bi-Lo and combine them for these locations," Roberts says. For example, the new Bi-Lo stores continued to sell some local produce and popular hot meal items from the old Piggly Wiggly stores like Mrs. Mac's chicken.
At the Meeting Street Bi-Lo in downtown Charleston, which made the switch from Piggly Wiggly in November, parts of the store still look familiar to people who have shopped there for years. The hot lunch counter still buzzes at midday, the produce section still carries mushrooms from Mepkin Abbey, and co-operator D'Shawn Smith still makes announcements over the intercom in his jazzy signature style. "Tired of running out of gas? Let the Meeting Street Bi-Lo hook you up with Fuel Perks!" Smith announces one afternoon.
But other things have changed. Longtime store operator Jared Lott no longer works at the store, and cashier Shirley Mae Hartley, who famously worked at the Pig for more than 50 years, retired around the time of the transition. And while some of the local products from Charleston-area Pig Wigs made the jump to Bi-Lo, others did not.
Nick D'Allesandro, co-owner of D'Allesandro's Pizza, says the restaurant's frozen pizza business is booming, partly due to distribution in Bi-Lo stores. The restaurant has been selling frozen versions of its signature pizzas, including the Get Gnarly and Chicken Bacon Ranch, for about a year now, and they started off distributing to two local Piggly Wigglys. When the stores were sold to Bi-Lo, D'Allesandro decided to make the jump. "They were pretty willing to bring us in and keep us in every store we were already in," D'Allesandro says. In fact, D'Allesandro's frozen pizza sales have ramped up since making the switch to Bi-Lo, with the store now carrying pizzas at seven Charleston-area locations. D'Allesandro estimates that 50 percent of his frozen pizza sales are now through Bi-Lo stores.
While D'Alessandro says the lack of local corporate representatives means Bi-Lo isn't always as responsive to vendors as Piggly Wiggly was, he's been pleased with the sales volume. "They've come in for dinner a couple of times when they're in town," he says of Bi-Lo corporate employees.
One local vendor that didn't make the jump from Piggly Wiggly to Bi-Lo was Rio Bertolini's, a Johns Island-baesd gourmet pasta company. At the time of the buyout, owner Brian Bertolini says he was doing brisk business at Piggly Wiggly Carolina stores. His company was shipping pasta directly to Piggly Wiggly's 612,000-square-foot distribution center in Jedburg, and he estimates his products were being sold in about 70 stores. "It hurt us when they closed. We had ramped up production for Piggly Wiggly with new equipment and stuff, and then it went away," Bertolini says.
After the stores were sold and the Jedburg distribution center closed, Bertolini decided the best fit for his product was Harris Teeter, which tends to carry more high-end gourmet products than either Bi-Lo or Piggly Wiggly. But after Bertolini went through the process of submitting his product to the grocer, Harris Teeter didn't pick it up, and now his company focuses on smaller markets and restaurant sales.
"In my mind, Piggly Wiggly was never really the ideal place for us to sell, but they pursued us," Bertolini says. "So we just did it because they were knocking on our door."