After almost 11 years, ownership of Mountain Fresh Grocery store on Main Street was passed on once again. On Monday, husband and wife-team Steve and Jennifer Snead-Smith of Richmond, Va., closed the deal on the purchase. The two left the corporate world behind and searched all over the country for the perfect business to buy.
Throughout their search they looked at several different types of businesses, not only restaurants or grocery stores. Steve said they loved what Mountain Fresh was doing and felt it was a good fit for their talents. Steve previously managed several businesses for German chemical companies and Jennifer has worked in human resources, nonprofit organizations and has managed multiple businesses.
Besides their view of Mountain Fresh having a good business model and experienced staff, they felt the community was wonderful. They specifically mentioned getting a time sensitive document notarized in Highlands after business hours.
“We had to mail it signed that night and it was after 5 p.m.,” said Steve. “Everything was closed but people started jumping on the phones calling their friends. We ended up getting it signed and the bank even stayed open later for us. The community came together and helped us when we needed it.”
Jennifer shared Steve’s impression of the town.
“Being in a small town was important to me,” said Jennifer. “After visiting here a couple of times, every experience was amazing. It’s exactly where I want to be.”
The Snead-Smith’s said they don’t plan on making any big changes to the store in the near future and both stressed the importance of helping with day-to-day operations.
“We don’t want to change the brand and in time we hope to come up with new ideas like they (previous owners) did,” said Steve. “If you’re not out front with the customers and see what’s going, how can you build that relationship and find out what people want?”
Former owners of Mountain Fresh include J.T. Fields, his husband Glenn Murer, and Don Reynolds. Fields refers to himself and the store’s “mascot” as he is commonly known as the face of the restaurant being present each day helping to keep things running smoothly. After working at the store for the past 11 years, he said it’s time to move on.
“I think the reality is I’m kind of ready to do something else,” said Fields. “But I do kind of feel like a parent sending their kids off to college by leaving here.”
When Fields purchased the store in 2007, he said it was called Mountain Fresh Fine Foods and was changed to Mountain Fresh Grocery. He said when they took over it was a grocery store that was in serious decline. From that point on Fields was determined to fill a need in the community.
“The town didn’t need another grocery store a couple blocks away,” said Fields. “It needed a place you could go to eat every day. There’s fine dining and then you fall off a cliff in quality.”
Fields and his team added several new features to the declining grocery store, including a grill for sandwiches, a coffee and wine bar, a bakery and a pizza counter with flour imported from Italy.
“We have a meat section, so we started grinding our own meat,” he said. “We have a bakery, let’s bake our own buns. We wanted to do things better and everything is made from scratch.”
After investing as much time and dedication as Fields has into Mountain Fresh, he said he is going to miss it.
“I’ve made lifelong friends here that I never thought could happen,” said Fields. “I’ll miss the day-to-day. There are 50 – 60 people I see every single day. I’m not leaving the community, but at the same time that will be the tough part for me.”
He added that there are few places in the country where all walks of life can hang out.
“We get everything here from construction workers, to bankers, to garden variety millionaires,” he said.
And what will Fields do with his new found time on his hands? He hasn’t made up his mind yet, but traveling is definitely on the agenda.
Fields is not the only one who will miss his presence at the store. General Manager Sherry Owens has worked with Fields for five years, and said he is without a doubt the face of the store.
“Everybody is always looking for him,” said Owens. “He’s always incredibly happy. When he gets here the atmosphere just lightens up. He’s a great problem solver and he’s definitely loyal to his employees and his customers. He’s going to be missed.”
Owens added that Fields was never afraid to get his hands dirty and jump in and work alongside his employees.
“People say he’s the boss, but he’s a hard worker,” she said. “Believe me he’s earned his rest.”
Highlands resident Glenn Carlson has been visiting Mountain Fresh three times a day for several years. He said the store is his second home because he enjoys hanging out with the staff and other visitors and he doesn’t like to cook for himself.
“I love the people there,” said Carlson. “They’re my family in a loose sense.”
In terms of Fields’ decision to move on, Carlson said “I’m happy for him. I think in life sometimes you do something and then you have to let it go.”
It was Miriam Hunter’s first time in Mountain Fresh on Tuesday. She traveled up with her husband from Hahira, Ga., and was thrilled to stumble upon the store.
“Everyone is so friendly and helpful,” she said. “I’m a health coach so when we came in my husband when straight to the pizza counter and I was able to find something for me. Plus I’m a coffee and wine snob so this place has everything I need.”
Fields will stay on working the day-to-day operations until sometime around Memorial Day.
By Brian O’Shea