As the mellow sounds of jazz trail off at a song’s end, the next track is nothing short of a jolt. A jive-y voice barks from the public address system with a see-sawing, carnival-like pitch:
“Feeling a little down this week? Come on back and see Dr. Shane, where he has his mega-meat deals. The right recipe and the right remedy, for YOU!”
It’s the most obvious clue. Shoppers here are not in suburbia, pushing a basket around to milquetoast Muzak while picking up cereal, chicken nuggets and paper towels. No, they’ve entered the unique space of the Meeting Street Piggly Wiggly.
Here, the managers encourage a culture of having fun and cutting up among 75-plus employees — well, as long as the expression stays within reasonable bounds and profits indicate the maverick style is working.
A member of the Piggly Wiggly Carolina chain, the store sits smack in the center of the city’s peninsula and has more than a half-century of history. So maybe it has earned the right to do a few things its own way.
“I tell you guys, I just can’t get enough of Ryan Ahl’s and Nate Dog’s Pig’s Pride Produce ... limes, three for a dollar. Head of green cabbage, 39 cents a pound.”
Nate Dog (Mikell) is one of the many nicknames in the banter, all referring to various store employees. There’s also Extreme the Dream Kadeem (Drayton), a clerk. The meat department’s Dr. Shane (Bazemore) got his moniker from wearing a butcher’s jacket, which reminded others of a doctor.
Applaud (or boo, as the case may be) store operator Jared Lott, who took over the downtown location after it was remodeled six years ago. The easygoing 35-year-old set out to create a store personality, and he has.
“I try to base the whole operation off of atmosphere, having fun,” says Lott, a husband and father of two adolescent girls who lives in Summerville.
Lott has been with the Pig for 15 years. He started in Columbia while working his way through college and rose through the ranks. By age 22, he was running his own store in Bamberg.
The announcements are the most immediately noticeable, but the Meeting Street Pig is individualistic in other ways as well.
For one, the store plays jazz on its sound system from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day before switching over to pop. “I have a very diverse store and I think jazz reaches all cultures,” Lott explains.
Other aspects that set the store apart include its selection of craft beers and a “growler” beer station. The store was only the second Pig to offer the draft-craft option, and only a few others have followed suit.
“Trusted operators get a lot of entrepreneurship. It’s probably the No. 1 reason I work for the Pig, because I get to treat the business like my own in a lot of ways. I feel like I have an edge over my competitors. I’m sure if sales and numbers weren’t as good, I wouldn’t have that freedom.”
Company spokesman Christoper Ibsen says only three stores in the Piggly Wiggly family — the other two at Folly Beach and on James Island — customize their announcements.
“As an employee-owned company, we put a great deal of faith in our fellow owners to know what is right for their guests in their local stores,” he says.
The company does get feedback from customers, and some of them like the announcements more than others, he acknowledges. But the company doesn’t discourage a store from developing its own personality.
The announcements “convey fun and a clear sense” that employees are engaged in creating the experience in their store, Ibsen says. “Based on the success and growing sales at all three of these locations, we feel our guests enjoy being a part of something local and real.”
The Meeting Street store is one of the company’s oldest. The chain’s first location, built in 1947, was a couple of blocks away at Columbus and Nassau streets, and the footprint of the current downtown store dates to the late 1950s.
Ibsen says it was very grand for its time, including crystal chandeliers and cutting-edge refrigeration technology. “This store was a regular tour bus stop for folks visiting Charleston.”
Lott brought the theatrical style of announcements with him from Bamberg. He initiated them, but then his assistant manager “took ownership,” Lott says.
“He would bring in cow bells and just do off-the-wall crazy stuff. People loved it.
“We noticed the things he was talking about, people were actually buying more of.”
Lott’s mission is for every employee to feel that they have a purpose, a part of the store’s success. He is especially pleased when someone else shares in his enthusiasm, like store co-operator D’Shawn Smith.
These days, Smith is the voice promoting the weekly specials. He doesn’t particularly look the part, but he’s a natural.
Smith, now 23, was a student at Burke High School when he came to work at the downtown store a few months after Lott.
He had played French horn in the school band and thought about being an actor. He graduated No. 4 in his class.
Smith has put his own stamp on the announcements, which are recorded with no-frills equipment in a windowless, 6-by-6-foot room behind the office.
“D’Shawn gives them a Charleston feel,” says Lott. “He’s a real part of the community.”
The recordings seem to have a following, Smith says. A few people have asked to buy tapes (which don’t exist), and Smith has been asked for his autograph.
Smith doesn’t write a script anymore like he did at first. His inspiration is more of the moment now. Often it’s something a customer says that catches his ear and becomes a taking-off point.
“They will come into the store and say, ‘Yeah, I remember saying that.’ At the same time, you are actually using the people around you to give it a twist.”
The announcements tend to get more elaborate during the holidays. Smith and fellow store co-operator Scott Szego have recorded skits revolving around six or so made-up characters.
There is Frank, “an older guy in his 70s with a very raspy voice,” says Smith.
A fictitious married couple, Weezie and George, are known to bicker a bit. Their “son,” George David Tommy III, is an off-the-wall, hyper guy.
When a few of those skits pushed the limits, Lott had to rein his managers in. “It was funny, hysterical, but some people were like, ‘What?’ ”
While Lott believes most customers find them entertaining, he acknowledges that some are very turned off. “The 15 percent who do not like them, loathe them,” he says. “We’re very conscious of that. We’ll turn them off when they shop.”
Lott says the whole purpose of the frivolity is to boost morale. “I believe in my employees. I believe in their personality. I think being able to express that makes their job fun. ... It can’t be just a job.”
Adds Smith, “There’s never a dull moment around here.”