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Bi-Lo is ending. Its employees mourn the loss, relive the heyday, wrestle with loyalty.

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  • 12 min to read
Bi-Lo is ending. Its employees mourn the loss, relive the heyday, wrestle with loyalty.

Among the posts in the Bi-Lo Alumni Facebook group are photos of graduations, anniversaries and holidays celebrated in the aisles. Black and white employee circulars from the early days. Obituaries marking the loss of beloved late co-workers.

And, interspersed throughout, darkened store fronts draped with bright green closing banners and stripped of the bold Bi-Lo signs that hung above the doors for years.

There is joy, as scores share their history with the company. Humor, too, as they swap stories and memes about the breakneck pace of working retail.

More than anything else, though, there is heartache. A sense of collective mourning as the chain's parent company dismantles the supermarket that brought them all together.

The images tell more than the story of a grocery store brand born in South Carolina's Upstate that went on to flourish across the Southeast. They tell the story of the thousands of employees who built it and how the company served as the backdrop for their lives.

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Rusty Streetman, a former Bi-Lo vice president who lives on the Isle of Palms, has a collection of store memorabilia that includes a fiberglass bull head, dated from the 1960s, that previously hung in the meat department at a Bi-Lo store. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

'Tell their story'

It's a sentiment that Heather Allan, who started the social media group, understands well. She worked for Bi-Lo for 21 years, starting as a part-time floral clerk at a Spartanburg store in 1998 and retiring in 2019 as the manager of a branch on Greenville's North Pleasantburg Drive.

She knows which store she was working at when she had each of her three children. She was at work when she learned about the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The locations are chapters of her life.

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A collection of the Bi-Lo Bulletins that is part of the collection of Rusty Streetman, a retired Bi-Lo vice president. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

After learning last year that parent company Southeastern Grocers would retire the banner and sell off the remaining stores to competitors, she thought of her former co-workers.

"There's older people who that's the only job they've ever had," she said. "I thought, gosh, when all of this is gone, how are they going to keep in touch with each other."

She started the social media group to give them a virtual place to connect and commiserate. A small, intimate space, she thought at the time. If there was enough interest, maybe she would arrange a reunion.

But within hours of launching the group, requests to join were coming in faster than she could get to them. It quickly became more than she could manage on her own and she asked a friend to help. As of late February, almost 7,000 people had joined.

Members have posted photos of stores where the Food Lion logo has replaced that of Bi-Lo. Ahold-Delhaize, Food Lion's parent company, bought 62 of the chain's locations and is quickly converting them and rebranding. Lowes Foods is replacing others. A handful are being turned into Piggly Wiggly stores as local owners acquire the buildings.

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A golden Bi-Lo Bull that was presented to long time employee Jack Simmons at his retirement in 1998 sits in his home in Greenville Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. Bart Boatwright/Special to The Post and Courier

"They're selling stores to our competition and that's just unreal," said Jack Simmons of Taylors, who worked for the company for 38 years.

Some in the group are trying to navigate the end, or find a new beginning. But many are there to remember the journey of a brand that once loomed large in South Carolina, and beyond. 

"I think it's something that they needed," Allan said. "To be able to tell their story."

The beginning

Rusty Streetman's relationship with Bi-Lo began before the company even existed. It was the late 1950s and his father was struggling to support his wife and four children on a mill worker's pay. He took a second job working the meat counter at a local grocery store called Wrenn and Syracuse.

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A photo from the Bi-Lo Bulletin of company founder Frank Outlaw Sr. Provided/Rusty Streetman

There were two locations then — one in Greenville and another in Easley. 

But in 1961, a former Winn-Dixie vice president named Frank Outlaw bought out part of the business. Shortly after, he bought out the rest.

His vision was simple but effective: well-run community grocery stores with low prices that boasted expansive, full-service meat counters. In some of the larger stores that came later, Streetman said, the counters stretched to 72 feet.

"It would run just the entire back wall of the grocery store," Streetman said. "It was amazing to see."

The stores needed a name. Outlaw opened it up to employees with a naming contest. His secretary, Edna Plumblee, won with Bi-Lo.

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This photograph from the Bi-Lo Bulletin was taken in North Carolina. Provided/Rusty Streetman

Streetman's father met Outlaw when it was still called Wrenn and Syracuse. The two got to know each other and Streetman's father was able to leave his job in the mill when Outlaw promoted him to assistant manager. When the younger Streetman was 14, he took a job at the Greenville store bagging groceries.

Streetman got to know Outlaw and his family over the years. But that wasn't unusual.

The chain's founder was a hands-on manager who made a point of talking to his employees. Streetman clearly remembers the picnics Outlaw hosted at his home on Lake Hartwell. Every employee was invited, from grocery baggers to executives.

Bi-Lo, naturally, catered the events.

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A photograph from the Bi-Lo Bulletin shows a list of all the stores the company had opened in 1975. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Under Outlaw's leadership, the company grew rapidly.

The chain touted its meat departments by topping its stores with life-sized, fiberglass bulls. The number of bulls denoted the size of the store. One-bull stores were the smallest, three-bull stores the largest.

In its first seven years, the chain went from two locations to 27. By the time Outlaw passed away in 1975, there were more than 70 locations in North Carolina and South Carolina.

In 1977, two years after Outlaw's death, Dutch retail conglomerate Royal Ahold bought the company.

The peak

In its first 16 years in operation, Bi-Lo grew quickly. In the years that immediately followed, that growth exploded.

Larry Zitzke, who once headed up the company's maintenance and construction department, started working for the supermarket in 1987. He said in his first year alone, he oversaw the construction of close to 30 new stores. That didn't even include the supermarkets they remodeled, updated or rebranded after acquisitions.

"We were performing well and they wanted us to build more stores so we could perform even better," he said.

Between 1977 and 2005, the chain grew from 79 stores in two states to 287 in four states with 23,000 employees, according to archives from the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.

And while the chain was owned by an international conglomerate based in the Netherlands, its identity as a country market with a close-knit, familial atmosphere endured, former employees said in interview after interview. 

Marsh Collins, who served as Bi-Lo's CEO from 1986 to 2002, said he and other company leaders communicated regularly with corporate Ahold. But business was booming, so the Dutch retailer allowed the chain's management to operate with relative autonomy.

The grocery store fostered a hands-on leadership style and open communication companywide, from shelf stockers to vice presidents. 

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Long time Bi-Lo employee Jack Simmons is seen in his Carolina High School yearbook at 16-years-old, which was when he started working at the grocery store. Bart Boatwright/Special to The Post and Courier

The supermarket business is highly competitive and operates on razor-thin margins. It lives and dies on prices and customer service. In that kind of environment, Collins said, it is essential to understand what is happening on the ground floor.

To cultivate that mentality, management put a premium on loyalty and brought employees up through the ranks. People like Simmons, former vice president Myron Jennings and Streetman, who retired in 2014 as a regional vice president, all started bagging groceries as teens and worked their way to the upper echelons. Collins started his career as a bagger at a grocery store in Chicago.

"I guess as a result of my personal experience, I always believed that if you didn't understand what happened in the four walls of our stores, it was going to be difficult for you to be a leader in the business," he said.

That philosophy came through in the day-to-day operations of each branch, Allan said.

"The company itself had always been a good company," she said.

Under Ahold, the next generations of families who built the brand remained. Frank Outlaw Jr. stayed on as a vice president for years before retiring. Simmons became manager of Bi-Lo's sprawling distribution center in Mauldin to replace his father who, like Streetman's father, was a member of the first class of Bi-Lo employees. Jennings got his first job at the store his brother managed and both of them stayed with the company for decades.

Bi-Lo invested in the community where it got its start. For close to 30 years, it hosted the Bi-Lo Charity Classic golf tournament, which raised more than $60 million for Upstate charities over the course of its existence.

"That was something that all of the store folks, wherever they were, got involved with and were enthusiastic about," said Joyce Smart, Bi-Lo's former director of public relations who was integral to organizing the tournament each year.

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In 1998, the company sponsored the construction of a new, 15,000-seat arena in downtown Greenville which was dubbed the Bi-Lo Center. Many long-time residents still use that name to refer to Greenville's largest event space, though it has been the Bon Secours Wellness Arena since 2013.

As the company thrived, employees on every level said they had a sense that their work played a part in growing the business. Looking back, Streetman said the supermarket reached its peak under Ahold, particularly during Collins' tenure.

"He's the man who really made the difference for our company," Streetman said. "He took us to a new level."

At its high-water mark, the company was pulling in more than $3 billion a year in revenue and operated more than 300 stores, Collins said. 

The heyday didn't last.

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Rusty Streetman’s collection of Bi-Lo memorabilia includes a fiberglass bull head that was part of the meat department at one of the chain's supermarkets. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

'Slow death'

In 2000, Ahold bought Maryland-based U.S. Food Services, one of the largest food distribution companies in the country, for $3.6 billion, according to a Washington Post story from the time. In the acquisition, Ahold agreed to take on the company's $925 million in debt. The sale was part of a larger, aggressive expansion — orchestrated by then Ahold CEO Cees van der Hoeven — in which the conglomerate bought 50 companies and assumed significant debt in a short span of time.

It was a push that came as the already competitive grocery store business was heating up. The emergence of new chains left smaller and mid-sized companies jostling for market share as Walmart took the lead nationally, Collins said.

But in 2003, Ahold's efforts to keep pace backfired when large-scale financial fraud was discovered at U.S. Food Services.

The Securities and Exchange Commission accused Ahold, through U.S. Food Services, of overstating net sales by roughly $30 billion from 2000 to 2002. As the controversy played out in media reports around the world, the value of Ahold shares dropped by about two-thirds overnight. Embroiled in scandal, staring down billions in potential fines and settlements, and with executives facing possible jail time, the company was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.

It sold assets to stay afloat, including Bi-Lo.

The Dutch conglomerate announced at the end of 2004 that it was selling the chain, along with Alabama-based Bruno's, to private-equity firm Lone Star Funds in Texas for $660 million, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal reported the week of the sale.

"That began a slow death," Collins said.

Less than a year later, Lone Star announced the sale or closure of 116 stores operated by Bi-Lo LLC, more than a quarter of all of its locations. Of those, close to half were Bi-Lo stores, The Greenville News reported. But none were closed in South Carolina. At the time, then-CEO of Bi-Lo LLC Dean Cohagan told the newspaper the closures were part of a strategic effort to invest more in South Carolina, where the chain still held close to 20 percent of the market share statewide and about 35 percent in the Greenville area.

A little more than a year later, the company announced a $75 million investment in the Upstate. That plan included the construction of a $10 million, 63,000-square-foot prototype superstore in Simpsonville, as well as expanding, renovating and building new stores across the region.

But the confidence and optimism projected publicly belied signs of internal turmoil.

In April of 2007, Lone Star announced plans to sell Bi-Lo, an effort it abandoned a few months later, citing volatility in the market. In March 2009, Bi-Lo filed for bankruptcy for the first time. As the company worked to steady itself, it saw four different CEOs at the helm, including one interim, in just three years, according to archives from The Greenville News. While dealing with the bankruptcy, and shortly after emerging from Chapter 11 protection in 2010, Lone Star again considered selling the company.

In 2013, shortly after merging with Winn-Dixie, the company sold its Mauldin headquarters on Bi-Lo Boulevard where fiberglass bulls once grazed in a small pen out front. The operation relocated to Jacksonville, Fla. Shortly after, the company announced it would not renew its naming rights for the Bi-Lo Center, Upstate Business Journal reported at the time. The same year, Lone Star formed Southeastern Grocers to manage Bi-Lo and several other grocery chains it owned. About five years after that, Bi-Lo again filed for bankruptcy.

Through it all, the company continued to shrink and investment in stores steadily declined amid fierce competition.

Allan, the founder of the Bi-Lo Alumni group, remembers being called to a conference center in 2017 with other managers in the region for a meeting. They were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement before they walked in the door. Inside, they were given lists of employees they would lay off in the coming days.

Bi-Lo stores converting to Food Lion

A sign alerts shoppers on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2021, that the Bi-Lo store at Kmart Plaza in Greenville will close Feb. 28. A Food Lion spokesperson said the store will reopen in March as a Food Lion.

When Allan joined the company, it felt like a family. This was something else.

"We weren't able to talk to those people until a certain day, at this time, you have to read this script," she said. "It was hard."

She left the company soon after.

By 2020, the chain employed just 13,000 people, about half the number at its peak, and was generating $1 billion a year in revenue. 

When Southeastern Grocers announced in the middle of last year it would discontinue the Bi-Lo brand, former employees said they were saddened but not surprised.

"They (Lone Star) are an investment company, they're not a grocery company," Smart said.

By the end of 2020, only 39 stores remained.

Lingering loyalty

As Bi-Lo struggled though the past 15 years, supermarket options around Smart's home grew more numerous.

She still shops at her Bi-Lo sometimes. She feels loyalty to the company and still knows some of the people who work at her local store. But the signs of its decline have become increasingly apparent over time. She sees them as she walks the produce aisle and waits in the checkout line. It isn't the employees' fault, she said.

Half the time, she goes to Harris Teeter.

"Sometimes old friends see me in there and say, 'You're a traitor. What are you doing in here?'" she said, laughing. 

Collins said he hasn't shopped in years at the grocery chain he once led as CEO. There are hints of anger and sadness in his voice when he talks about the separation.

"I shopped at the stores that were a better option," he said. "That's a very sad thing for me to have to tell you, but it's the truth."

Simmons, on the other hand, never considered switching.

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Longtime Bi-Lo employee Jack Simmons looks through his high school yearbook at his home in Greenville on Feb. 3. Bart Boatwright/Special to The Post and Courier

When he retired in 1998, his co-workers, subordinates and managers put together a binder full of memories from his time with the company. His father received the same when he left Bi-Lo. Simmons still has both. His father's sits in a place of honor on the mantle and he keeps his own safely tucked away in his Taylors home. He cracked open his binder recently for the first time since retiring and leafed through the laminated pages.

Inside, he found photos, messages and memories similar to those that have flooded the Bi-Lo Alumni Facebook group in the past seven months. Instead of pictures snapped with smartphones, these are images captured on film and pasted lovingly on pieces of cardboard and construction paper. They show scenes from the warehouse that Simmons managed, group shots of the Bi-Lo softball team, photos of people he worked with for more than half of his life.

"There's a lot of family in it," Simmons said.

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A page in Jack Simmons' retirement book includes photos of the company softball team he played on. Provided

He is sad to see the end of the company he helped build but his connection to the Bi-Lo name is too deep to shop somewhere else. Now, with the locations near his house closing, his wife is in the market for a new grocery store.

Zitzke finds himself in the same position. He helped build his local store, as he did at so many locations across the Upstate. He left town for a few days in January and came back to find operations were already winding down.

"I knew that it had been sold and I knew it was going to be converted," he said. "But the impact of walking in there and seeing it, it was powerful."

While the name is disappearing, there's a sense for some the chain's legacy will live on. In 2016, Royal Ahold became half of Ahold-Delhaize through a merger, and by extension the owner of the Food Lion grocery store chain. The company bought more than 60 Bi-Lo stores across the Southeast, as well as the Mauldin warehouse that Bi-Lo formerly owned and which has continued to serve as its distribution center through a contractor.

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A photograph from the Bi-Lo Bulletin shows the grocery chain's warehouse and offices in Mauldin. Provided/Rusty Streetman

An executive with the Dutch company recently told The Post and Courier they plan to keep as many workers at the warehouse "as humanly possible." The company is also hiring many former Bi-Lo employees at the rebranded stores.

In one post in the Bi-Lo Alumni group, a woman celebrated that she and her friend were both hired on by Food Lion. The two met as teens in 1976 when Bi-Lo hired them and have both continued to work for the supermarket since. Another photo shows a group of employees standing in a store, mid-transition. The woman who posted it expressed gratitude they would all continue to work together at the new store.

Zitke said he is hopeful that will be a common story. He mourns the Bi-Lo brand, but his worry is reserved for the people.

"The people made that company, all of their hard work and sweat and blood and tears," Zitke said.

"That's the foundation of Bi-Lo."

Follow Conor Hughes on Twitter at @ConorJHughes.

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