CHEROKEE, Ala. (AP) — Tommy Pounders greets his regulars by name, welcoming them out of the rainy December day into the warmth of JJ’s, a tiny diner on U.S. 72. It’s one of two restaurants in the Northwest Alabama town of Cherokee, population 1,000.
The lunch crowd fills nearly every table – guys on break from the chemical and paper manufacturing plants nearby; retired couples eating their usual; the former mayor and his wife chatting with neighbors; a pair of friends dressed head to toe in camouflage.
JJ’s is the kind of place where the waitress doesn’t bring menus to the table because everybody already knows what they want. It’s now owned by Pounders’ wife Janie, though there’s been a restaurant in that location since the highway was built in the 1960s.
JJ’s is known for its burgers and meat-and-three specials. A whiteboard propped against a wood-paneled wall near the front lists the day’s choices for the “one meat, three veg” plate for $6.45.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- Jan. 6 witness Anthony Ornato is at the center of a battle over credibility
- Bezos lashes out at Biden over call for lowering of gas prices
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
- The 20-somethings who help the 70-somethings run Washington
- An excavation in the sea depths recovers Hercules from the afterlife
Pounders jokes that his regulars – and nearly everyone at JJ’s is a regular – would riot if JJ’s didn’t offer chicken and dressing on Thursdays.
Some regulars eat multiple meals there nearly every day.
A customer sitting in a booth at the front asks Pounders whether the recent closure of the town’s only grocery store will increase his business.
It’s been a few weeks since the Piggly Wiggly just down the road abruptly closed. It happened right before Thanksgiving, and left the town with nowhere to buy fresh produce or meat. The nearest grocery stores are 20-30 miles away.
“When it closed, I couldn’t believe it,” Pounders said. “One day it was open, and the next day, it wasn’t.”
He isn’t sure it’s increased business for him, but he’s had to look elsewhere for pork chops and other fresh meat he used to buy there for the diner.
Chuck Lansdell, former longtime mayor of Cherokee, stopped by to say hello. He said it’s now a 40-mile round trip for him to shop for groceries.
“We’re having to drive out of town to get the basics,” he said, adding that the loss has been especially hard on Cherokee’s older residents, many of whom don’t feel comfortable driving long distances. Those on a fixed income relied on the Piggly Wiggly’s special sales on meat and produce.
Cherokee is the only township of any size in the western half of Colbert County, meaning the loss of its last grocery store could affect as many as 3,000 people in the surrounding rural communities. As town leadership scrambles to fix the problem, residents face the holidays without easy access to affordable, nutritious food.
The Piggly Wiggly – known locally as The Pig – is less than half a mile down the highway from JJ’s. The parking lot is nearly empty now. Homemade green poster board signs on the doors announce “Sorry! Closed for Business.”
Twinkle lights, manger scenes and cheery wooden cutouts of Santa and snowmen decorate Cherokee’s downtown district. Over at the Town Hall, Mayor Terry Cosby sat in his office with a member of the Cherokee Industrial Development Board and one of the City Council members.
Cosby said he can’t go anywhere in town without somebody asking what he’s going to do about a new grocery store.
“It’s caught everybody off guard,” he said of the store’s closing. “And not only that, but 99 percent of the groceries that my family buys came from down there. We haven’t had a whole lot of groceries in our house the last couple of weeks.”
Most people in the area will have to drive 20-30 miles to get to the nearest grocery stores, either in the Muscle Shoals area to the east or over the state line in Iuka, Miss. to the west. While the median household income for Colbert County is around $44,000, the median household income in Cherokee is $36,731. About a fifth of the population lives below the Federal poverty level. The area is mostly white.
Cosby is still not completely sure why the store’s owner, who manages a handful of other Piggly Wiggly stores in Mississippi, chose to close the one in Cherokee. The owner had problems with aging equipment in the meat department, and sales were down slightly, said Cosby.
But the abrupt closure just before Thanksgiving didn’t give town leadership time to formulate a plan.
“Everyone’s just extremely upset,” said Sandi Hendrix, a lifelong Cherokee resident who now sits on the City Council. “If we had known six months ago (it would be closing) we could have had a game plan, could have been (seeking out another store).”
The Pig’s closure means a loss of about $7,000 a month in tax revenue, nearly a quarter of the town’s commercial tax earnings. It was previously the No. 1 revenue-producer for the town. Cosby said he doesn’t anticipate having to lay off any town employees, but will have to reduce spending.
The town will stock its own toilet paper and other necessities, rather than paying a service to do that. Cosby said he may have to cut their internet services down to the bare bones minimum. He said he won’t be able to hire some of his part-time employees for as many jobs as he’d like.
“I had one guy from the Pig come up here wanting a job because he got laid off,” said Cosby. “I said, ‘Well, (the store closing) is probably why you aren’t going to get a job here. It’s a ripple effect.'”
Cherokee was also a place where vacationers at nearby Pickwick Lake would come to shop for groceries, said Hendrix. Now they’ll have to take their business to Iuka, Miss.
The only place in Cherokee to shop for food is the Dollar General store. Midafternoon, the parking lot out front was mostly full.
The store has gone from being twelfth in sales to No. 2 since the Piggly Wiggly closed.
Inside, it has a refrigerated case with some milk, eggs, deli meat and frozen pizzas. There’s bread, and a few aisled of canned food. Packaged meat like Vienna sausages and hotdogs sell out quickly.
There are no fresh fruits or vegetables, and no fresh meat department. Dollar General stores are designed for quick convenience trips, with narrow aisles and just a couple of registers.
These days in Cherokee, lines get backed up quickly. The store often runs out of basics like bread and milk. Packaged food sometimes doesn’t even make it onto shelves, as shoppers grab what’s on pallets in the aisles before employees can restock.
“(Store managers) are adapting,” said Cosby. “I went and talked to them and they have stepped up, but they’re still getting caught off guard.
“Last night I went down there and stood in line forever. Their aisles looked like cows had run through them. They normally do a good job of keeping the place clean, but they are just slammed right now.”
More than a third of Alabama residents live in areas with no grocery stores, according to a 2015 report by The Food Trust, the Alabama Grocer’s Association and VOICES for Alabama’s Children. That’s about 1.8 million people.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture designates these as “food deserts,” or places with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. People living in food deserts are often forced out of necessity to live off of packaged and processed foods that have been linked to health conditions like obesity and diabetes.
In 2015, the Alabama Legislature passed the Healthy Food Financing Act to provide grants, loans and tax credits to grocers to expand access to food in Alabama’s food deserts. It’s administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.
Cosby said he’s been working with ADECA and the North Alabama Council of Local Governments to line up available grants and low-interest loans to entice a grocery into the area – either to occupy the former Piggly Wiggly building or to build a new one.
Troy Rutland, general manager of the Cherokee Division of TEC, the local telecommunications company, said the town and surrounding area is more than able to support a new grocery.
“We’ve got a pretty captive audience here,” said Rutland, who is also a board member on the Cherokee Industrial Development Board. He graduated from Cherokee High School in the same class as Cosby. “There’s not another grocery store until you get to Tuscumbia, or to Iuka going the other way.
“We’re on one of the main thoroughfares running east to west in the midsouth (U.S. 72) so we have everything in place. We’ve just got to capitalize on it a bit better than we have in the past 50 years, and we’re doing that.”
Cherokee’s leaders want to take advantage of its location among the scenic rolling hills of Northwest Alabama, near recreational attractions like the Tennessee River and Pickwick Lake.
Nearby is the Natchez Trace, a historic multi-state travel corridor that attracts outdoors enthusiasts interested in biking, hiking and water sports. The town plans to soon launch a kayak outfitter service through the Parks & Rec department.
A grocery store would help pull in additional tax revenue from vacationers and tourists.
“We have a lot of potentials happening here, a lot of things on the horizon,” said Cosby. “We want to bring people here because it’s beautiful.”
Cherokee will be without a store for several months at least.
“Everybody says you need to get us a store, but you don’t just twitch your nose and one appears,” said Hendrix. “It’s not realistic to think it can be done overnight.”
Cosby said he’s had interest from regional businessman Jeff Taylor, who wants to retire in the Cherokee area and has said he may want to open a grocery store. Cherokee residents have been offering town leaders their preferences: FoodLand, Aldi, or another Piggly Wiggly.
The mayor has a 1970s city map in his office that has ads for local stores along the edges; there were several locally-owned grocery stores back then with names like Malone’s and Thompson’s. Now the town has to hope a national or regional chain will listen to their sales pitch and take an interest.
The question on everyone’s lips is when that will happen.
Cosby said he hopes to know something definite in the next two or three months.
In the meantime, as Christmas approaches, neighbors and churches have been helping the elderly and others with food boxes and rides to the grocery store.