The Surf City IGA has been the epicenter of the Topsail Island community for 65 years.
In the past 65 years, the Surf City IGA has been through name changes, hurricanes and competition from new stores popping up in the area. The grocery continues to be a family business, though, and a fun business at that, says manager Jim Williams. Although the IGA is technically owned by a family trust, Williams operates the business “at the good will” of his mother-in-law, Joyce Christopher.
Surf City was a very small town in the mid-1950s when Al Ward built a shopping center on the island side. Completed in 1954, the center included Ward’s office, a laundromat and a small grocery store. Although some of the businesses have shifted places, the shopping center is still in the same basic location as it was when it began operations more than 65 years ago. An ABC store and a post office were added a few years later, and “that was Surf City,” Williams notes.
Ward’s friend Archie Christopher purchased the shopping center and the property across the street 13 years later. At the time, the IGA was known as the Red and White grocery store – a name that still lingers in many conversations among residents. Christopher, who was retired from working in maintenance at the University of North Carolina, operated the store from when he purchased it in 1967 until he died in 1983.
Christopher’s son, Don, put the grocery on the market. DC Lanier, an entrepreneur, purchased it and ran it from 1985 to 1991, when it returned to Don Christopher’s ownership. And that’s when Jim Williams entered the picture. Williams was “just out of graduate school in Greenville” (East Carolina University) when he got the call from Christopher. Williams has been there ever since.
The store, born as the Red and White and then transitioned to Lanier’s, became the Surf City IGA.
The Independent Grocers Alliance (IGA) is a national company founded in 1926 with a focus on family-owned, local grocery stores. There are currently just more than 1,000 IGA stores operated throughout the United States and only about 20 or so in eastern North Carolina. The IGA franchise allows grocery stores to “stay true to who they are — hometown store owners in a position to meet the needs of their unique communities.”
That sense of community and family has served Williams and the Surf City IGA well over the years. Even though in the grocery business there is “not going to be 12 months of smooth,” as Williams emphasizes, the store continues to operate on solid ground, and Williams has just marked his 29th year there. He says it’s a fun business and has been a special place for himself and the community.
Williams had been spending his summers in Surf City, working in various restaurants and enjoying the area, when he began wishing he could stay here year-round. That wish came true when Don Christopher, whose daughter Williams was dating and eventually married, called him to help out at the store.
Christopher was planning to “package it up and sell it again,” but Williams talked him out of it, and the store remains in the Christopher family today. That same year, a new grocery store, Food Lion, opened up on the mainland. Then, another five years later, the island was hit by hurricanes Fran and Bertha as well as a downturn in the economy.
Williams says that when Food Lion opened, the IGA did lose some sales. However, he adds, “In the end, we were fine. We rebuilt ourselves —changed up the product mix — and catered to our customers.” He says he took away a critical life lesson from the experience: “I will never let that dictate how I live again,” noting that competition “might hurt, but we have a great location and a loyal base that keeps us rolling.” He says the store has fully recovered and is “doing record sales every year.
Williams reflects on some of the very early years. In the off-season, the entire store was staffed by Williams and one cashier. There were 400 people on the south end, and another 500 in Surf City at the time. He says, “If we broke $1,000 in sales on a February day, it was a good day. We have come a long way.”
Williams attributes much of the store’s success to the “great employees who are so responsive to the customers and to the community.” Everyone who works there prides themselves on serving the community.
“There’s no cooler way to be part of a community than to be a community grocery store,” Williams says.
Another significant change that happened very recently is that the new Surf City bridge shifted traffic from South Topsail Drive, the road directly in front of the IGA. The impact of the new bridge was not great at first, as Williams says people had a little bit of an issue getting to the store. The bridge and traffic rerouting have actually helped the store and its customers, though.
“As time has progressed,” Williams observes, “people appreciate the fact that you don’t have to get in the traffic line of the bridge and you don’t have to go through the roundabout. You can get in and out of the parking lot more safely now.” The IGA website now features the Live Feed of the Surf City bridge, from the viewpoint of the store.
The Surf City IGA has changed hands and names a few times, but there are no plans now for selling the store. At one point in the 1970s, the Surf City Shopping Center was the second largest employer in Pender County, behind the county itself. Today, the grocery store has “28ish employees,” and the shopping center features a gift shop and a real estate office.
“We’ve been here a long time,” Williams says. “We’ve become a part of the community. It’s a nice way to do life.”
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Surf City IGA
106 S. Topsail Drive, Surf City
Photography by Unique Media Designs