Local grocers: An interview with Ken Hubbard, Darwin Metcalf and Brett Hubbard of Western Market

At Western Market, the people running the place grew up in the grocery business.

From left: COO Darwin Metcalf, CEO Ken Hubbard and Brett Hubbard, deli/bakery/floral specialist, on the mezzanine of the new Mountain Brook store.

Ken Hubbard was in high school in 1960 when he started bagging groceries for founder Inos Heard at the original store at Five Points West in Birmingham.

Darwin Metcalf started as a stock clerk at the Highland Avenue store in 1967.

Brett Hubbard, Ken’s son, began in 1988 as a part-time courtesy clerk at the Lorna Road store while he was in high school.

“Part of our appeal is our people,” said Darwin, president and chief operating officer since 2007. “We’ve got some incredibly talented people who have been with us for a long time” in the delis and in the meat, wine and floral departments, he said. “They glue us to the community and make Western Market such a special place for our customers.”

Three stores operate as a Western Market – Lane Parke in Mountain Brook, Rocky Ridge in Vestavia Hills and Highland Avenue in the Southside area of Birmingham. The company also runs a Food Depot in Gardendale and a Village Market in the East Lake area of Birmingham.

“We are committed and invested in these communities, to serving our customers and remaining Birmingham’s leading independent grocer,” said Ken, now chairman and chief executive officer. The company’s founder convinced Ken to abandon a choice accounting job offer right out of college and instead become the office manager and accountant for the growing, independent grocery chain. Ken and the founder’s son-in-law bought the local chain in 1987. Four years later, Ken became the sole owner.

“We hope that when someone leaves our store, they are pleased with the service. Our history tells us that’s the case.” – KEN

For 69 years, Western Market has served the grocery needs of the Birmingham community. It currently operates five locally owned stores.

Local Stores with Local Products

Heavenly Donut Co. is one of the 200 local companies with products carried at the Western Markets in Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills and Birmingham, the Food Depot in Gardendale and the Village Market in Birmingham.

Local people and local products make Western stand out from the national and regional chain competitors.

“We’ve given a number of people their start by letting them sell their product in our stores,” said Ken. “We have … close to 200 local products that you will not find … in a chain store.”

Western was the first in the Birmingham market to sell Sister Schubert’s rolls. Such Alabama brands as Soup and Ladle soups, T’lish dressings and Ashley Mac’s gourmet-to-go products have been on Western shelves all along. Their new Mountain Brook store has whole areas dedicated to the products of Heavenly Donut Co. and OHenry’s Coffees, both served hot daily.

“As neighborhoods have changed and competition has continuously moved in, we have changed store names and formats when needed, and have always tried to keep our focus on one thing – the customers’ wants and needs,” Western Market’s entry for the 2017 Retailer of the Year competition states. “Each store manager has a lot of latitude to make decisions and carry products to cater to their specific neighborhood.”

In October, Western Market was named Gold Retailer of the Year in their sales category.

Newest Store Wows

Thirteen months ago, to evolve with the changing neighborhood, Western moved its Mountain Brook store into a massive new development just behind its previous location, where the store had been for 57 years.

The wine vending machine dispenses wine in a glass.

You immediately know you are not in the typical grocery store when you encounter the shopping carts with built-in, wine-glass holders. With proper IDs, Western Market’s Mountain Brook shoppers can purchase a wine swipe card to use in a vending machine that dispenses wine in a glass that fits in the cart. The samples dispensed make it easier to choose from the more than 2,200 varieties of wine sold at the store.

“You don’t see many supermarkets like this,” said Ken, pointing also to the mezzanine with a sit-down eating area, a growler station with 12 taps and a small conference room that can be booked for community meetings.

The footprint of the new store is 7,300 square feet bigger than the previous store, plus the 3,000-square-foot mezzanine, which offers free Wi-Fi.

Holiday One Stop

When Darwin was the Mountain Brook store manager, he recognized the customers’ interest in having someone in the store to help them with their wine selections. Now he points out that Western is “a one-stop shop during the holidays.”

Western sells flowers by the stem and has floral designers who can arrange flowers to meet customers’ needs. Photo by Judith Hill.

Customers “can come in, order their floral arrangements, order their prepared food, come to the wine department and get that perfect wine to go with dinner and do it all in just one shop,” he said.

Brett, Western’s deli, bakery and floral specialist, said, “Our Thanksgiving and Christmas meals have always been a popular offering,” adding that the meals can be ordered online. The store also offers party trays and gift baskets.

“Plus, we have four very talented floral designers who can do anything that a florist can do, and it’ll be at a better value,” said Brett.

The store also partners with local bakeries to offer their specialties during the holiday season.

Giving Back

This Christmas season will be the 17th year that Western Market has encouraged its customers to donate $1.95 to buy the homeless a meal at the Jimmy Hale Mission. “By facilitating the donations from the customers, we’ve raised roughly $15,000 a year,” said Ken. “Right at $180,000 has been donated over the years.”

A scene from Western’s Annual Wine and Food Festival in 2016. Photo by Zeekee Business Photos.

Another beneficiary of Western Market’s efforts to “put back into the community” is the Mountain Brook library, Ken said. “We have donated almost $200,000 to the Emmet O’Neal Library,” he said.

The library is one of the beneficiaries of Western’s Annual Wine and Food Festival. Other groups that have benefited from that event held in the fall each year include the Birmingham Zoo, the East Lake Restoration Project and the Junior League of Birmingham.

Western Market has been an Alabama Retail Association member since 1989. Visit online at westernsupermarkets.com


Founded 1948

Number of Employees 300

Mentor Inos Heard, founder of Western Supermarkets

Smart Move
Staying with a growing independent grocery chain rather than working with a Big Four accounting firm. I put myself through college working at Western Supermarkets. When I graduated from the University of Alabama with an accounting degree, I had accepted a job with Ernst & Ernst. Inos Heard offered me a job as accountant and office manager to stay with Western Supermarkets. He sold me on that idea. Looking back, I made the right decision.

Learning Moment
In high school, my job was to fill up the sugar bin. In those days, grocery stores sold a lot of sugar. We were selling it so fast, it took a long time to fill up that sugar bin. I made a comment that I couldn’t fill the bin, because of all the customers buying sugar.
Mr. Heard explained in his own way that customers are the reason we are here, and we wouldn’t be here without them. 
At that moment, I learned how and why we were in business, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Story by Nancy King Dennis
Photos by Brandon Robbins
(unless otherwise noted)

This article is the cover story of the November 2017 Alabama Retailer.