Butler & Bailey dares to offer a pre-digital grocery experience
Butler & Bailey â¢ 7513 Northshore Drive â¢ Rocky Hill
Magazines review restaurants, but generally they donâ’t review supermarkets. They should. Thereâ’s just as much variation in grocery stores as there is in restaurants, and often a lot more to be learned about the neighborhood the store serves. People go to restaurants all over town, but they buy groceries close to home, and an easy way to find out what a neighborhood is all about is to check out the local grocery store.
I would warn readers up front that Iâ’m not very interested in which store is â“betterâ” than another. Certainly one store in town is going to offer the best buy on tomatoes, but thereâ’s more to life and supermarkets than tomatoes.
I want to know more about the people who buy the tomatoes. Everybody in Knoxville shops for food, after all, so if you go to grocery stores, you get to see every kind of person the town has to offer. Some stores offer better buys, some are better organized, some have a better selection, and these columns will consider all that. In the end, though, Iâ’m looking for the store that, in people terms, is the most interesting.
Vibe: Mayberry RFD
Distinctiveness: Radically comfy
If time travel is your idea of interesting, Butler & Bailey is the store for you. Located in the Rocky Hill Center on Northshore Drive, Butler & Bailey is in the middle of a transformation affecting the whole northern shore of the Tennessee River, as pricey subdivisions fill up real estate west to Pellissippi Parkway and beyond.
Things are changing in Rocky Hill. The End Zone video store, a neighborhood fixture for 14 years located two doors down from Butler & Bailey, just closed for good. Right across the street, a new housing development is taking shape on the hill above the old Baptist cemetery. All the stores in the strip mall sport spiffy new faÃ§ades.
But inside Butler & Bailey, itâ’s still 1955. Mr. Bailey, a florid-faced fellow reminiscent of Mayberryâ’s Floyd the barber (but without the mustache), presides at the managerâ’s station. Where other stores often barricade the manager in a cubicle behind an eight-foot wall, Mr. Bailey stands in tie and grocerâ’s apron behind a low desk to the left of the cash registers, chats with his cashiers, and greets customers as they come through the door.
Thereâ’s a big, slightly beat-up kangaroo kiddie ride at the front of the store and the plate glass windows are plastered with lost-pet notices and ads giving away litters of beagle puppies (the neighborhood seems to recycle its animals). Butler & Bailey is clean but natural. A green-and-white color scheme holds together the storeâ’s signage, but compared to modern chain supermarkets, the look hasnâ’t quite jelled.
Displays are set up in the produce and bread sections on what appear to be tables moved in from different kitchens in the neighborhood, and it is not likely that the storeâ’s slightly musty odor of rotisserie chicken has been piped in mechanically from the central library of cutting-edge grocery smells. Haphazard charm is the only brand identity this store is selling.
(If Butler & Bailey ever opens franchises, they could match the physical feel of the place, but theyâ’d also have to hire a Mr. Bailey to front every store, and that may not be possible. You could clone this place like Cracker Barrel, but invariably there would be genetic anomaliesâ"the other Mr. Baileys would lapse intermittently into Yiddish, or come to work in pantyhose.)
Parking spaces for the storeâ’s patrons are marked in the lot outside, but half of the signs spell Butler â“Bulter.â” Thereâ’s a Purity ice cream freezer sitting in the corner of the frozen foods section, in front of what looks like a closet door. In the bread department, specialty breads are spread out on a kitchen table so big it almost blocks the aisle. The storeâ’s selection is fine but not overwhelmingly varied. Like the dÃ©cor, itâ’s casually catch-as-catch-can.
Merita products dominate the bread section, for example, but you can also find specialty items that might not be available elsewhere, like a display of Orangina soft drinks in the produce section, as well as Claeyâ’s Old Fashioned Horehound Candies, homemade cherry divinity from Georgia, Driverâ’s Chess and Chocolate Chess Pies from Lebanon, Tenn. Prices on my list of 11 staples totaled $40.24, $4.71 cheaper than our benchmark, the Bearden Kroger.
The cashiers are all school kids working what looks like their first jobs. There are no automated check-out machines in Butler & Bailey. If you shop here youâ’ll have to talk to humans. You can use a charge or debit card, but the kids at the registers have to run it through an authorizing contraption wired to the register.
In Butler & Bailey, itâ’s hard to feel like youâ’re riding at the forefront of contemporary culture. But come on, youâ’re in a grocery store. Itâ’s not a fashion show or a club. Back in the good old days, not only were there public environments that didnâ’t look like the set of a music video, there werenâ’t even music videos.
Talk to them, John Lennonâ"imagine no music videos! It isnâ’t hard to do. Nothing to change your hair for, and no deodorant, too. In the days when people bought food for their evening meals the same day everyday, grocery stores were mundane, â“unspecialâ” environments, the one place where you could almost get away with shopping in your pajamas. Now, when even public toilets are given a special look, people wear their pajamas to the mall, to church, to their weddings. I think thereâ’s a reason for that. I think people want a break from branding. They want to relax.
In Butler & Bailey, the shoppers are suburban housewives with children, retirees, husbands dropping in from the hardware store next door. Itâ’s a Caucasian crowd but a comfortable crowd. Everybody seems to know everybody. People stop and chat. If you just stepped off a plane from New York, you will go nuts in Butler & Bailey; if you deprogram yourself first with two quiet weeks in Knoxville, youâ’ll do just fine.
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