Chapel Hill retail icon Southern Season prepares to expand to Charleston region
As retailers go, Southern Season doesn’t fit neatly into any single category.
At a glance
Southern Season opens at 730 Coleman Blvd. in Mount Pleasant on Thursday, marking the company’s only store aside from its original Chapel Hill, N.C., location. The ribbon-cutting ceremony is at 8:30 a.m. Some statistics about the company:
It carries 80,000 different items
About 45% of its annual sales fall between the day after Thanksgiving and Dec. 26
About 45% of customers are men
The new store has a 48-seat cooking school equipped with TV cameras
It has a 250-seat restaurant with a private-function room and outdoor bar area
One of its most expensive food items is an imported cured ham that sells for about $190 a pound.
It’s not just a specialty food and beverage store. It’s not just a seller of cookware and other kitchen items. It’s not just a cooking school. It’s not just a bar and restaurant operator.
In short, it’s all of those businesses tucked under one roof — part Williams-Sonoma, part Dean & Deluca, part Food Network.
“We entertain. We educate. And, of course, it’s all about the product,” said veteran entrepreneur and investor W. Clay Hamner, chairman of the expansion-minded company.
Southern Season is gearing up for what is arguably the most eagerly awaited retail recruit for local culinary buffs since Whole Foods took over an empty Bi-Lo in Mount Pleasant nine years ago.
This time, it’s a vacant Food Lion, also in Mount Pleasant, that’s getting the upscale makeover. Southern Season opens Thursday at Brookgreen Town Center on Coleman Boulevard, the first step in a big growth spurt for the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based company.
“It will be a destination,” said Hamner, whose TC Capital Fund bought Southern Season from its founder two years ago.
The East Cooper store has hired 208 full- and part-time employees to staff the multifaceted enterprise, with all but three from the local area, he said. The payroll will jump to about 300 around the holidays.
“The people we hire love food. They love to entertain. They’re well-educated,” said Hamner, who teaches entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Flagler business school.
In describing the array of inventory, he uses the term “depth.” He points to the vast selections of wines, coffees, teas, chocolates and other consumables.
“Every hot sauce known to man,” Hamner said during a tour of the new store. “Every barbecue sauce known to man.”
He added that the company is “big on gift baskets,” and sells “more coffee beans” in North Carolina “than anybody.”
Southern Season isn’t a supermarket, at least not in the traditional sense.
The 40,000-square-foot Mount Pleasant operation is broken down into 10 distinct departments, with each of those expected to generate $2 million to $4 million a year in revenue, led by kitchenware sales, Hamner said.
While the new store will carry items such as pricey cured hams, pates, fresh-baked goods and gourmet cheeses, it won’t stock most everyday staples. Produce, milk, seafood and fresh meats aren’t in the merchandise mix.
Hamner said the company’s strategy includes giving free shelf space to locally produced goods, from tea raised on Wadmalaw Island to kitchen gadgets designed in Mount Pleasant.
“If it sells, we keep it,” he said. “If it doesn’t sell, we can say we tried.”
Lowell Grosse of Charleston Coffee Roasters is one of the store’s local vendors. He said he’ll be holding demonstrations and classes aimed at the “in-home consumer.”
“It fits along the lines with our brand because it’s higher end,” Grosse said of Southern Season.
The company is the new kid in a town awash with upscale food-oriented retailers, but it’s actually an old hand at that game.
Opened in late 1975 by Michael Barefoot in an 800-square-foot space, Southern Season has cultivated a devoted following and a huge mail-order business over the past 38 years. The Chapel Hill store is now considered a local landmark, a “must-see” for visitors, Hamner said.
But Bareback resisted Hamner’s suggestions to take the concept to other markets.
“He had no interest in expanding,” Hamner said.
Two years ago, in the aftermath of the recession, he agreed to sell to Hamner and other Chapel Hill investors. Barefoot remains a consultant to the company.
Hamner is no newcomer to the retail industry. He was running Montrose Capital when it acquired the The Pantry convenience store chain in 1987. He’s also been a director of Wendy’s International, among other companies, and he was an investor in Kleinfeld, the Manhattan bridal boutique made famous by the popular cable show “Say Yes to the Dress.”
“I seem to like retail for some reason,” he said.
A persuasive case
It was veteran real estate dealmaker Charlie Way of The Beach Co. who helped make the Mount Pleasant expansion come together. Way was looking to fill the empty Food Lion space that his family-owned real estate business owns. He flew to Chapel Hill to call on Southern Season with Mount Pleasant Mayor Billy Swails in tow.
A persuasive case
“He’s very persuasive,” Hamner said of The Beach Co. chairman.
It wasn’t an instant decision.
“We love Charleston,” said Hamner. “That isn’t hard to sell. The question was, ‘Is it large enough?’”
He noted that the North Carolina location draws most of its business from a 50-mile radius, an area with a population of about 1.7 million people.
On paper, Charleston is about half that size, and is on the coast, to boot. But Hamner said the region has an outsized base of well-heeled consumers who aren’t calculated in the numbers retailers look at when studying future store sites.
Some are retirees, he said. Others don’t declare Charleston as their primary residence but spend a fair amount of time in the area.
“They may have a house on Kiawah Island or Sullivan’s Island but live in Atlanta,” he said. “They don’t show up in the demographics.”
Bolstering the case for the hefty Mount Pleasant investment is the region’s nearly year-round tourist base and its tidy assortment of colleges, which brings parents to the area. The thriving food scene in Charleston was the icing on the cake, Hamner said.
As the store prepares to open, Southern Season is also expanding into eight other cities in Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Hamner said the short-term goal is ramp up to 10 locations in the Southeast and ring up a combined $400 million in annual sales. That would be enough to get Wall Street’s attention and set the stage for a possible public stock offering, followed by a nationwide rollout, Hamner said.
The company will set off down that path Thursday in Mount Pleasant.
Edtior’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Southern Season founder Michael Barefoot.
Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.