New Owners Buy Mountain Fresh Grocery

– From left are new owners of Mountain Fresh Grocery Steve and Jennifer Snead-Smith, and former store owner J.T. Fields. Not pictured are former owners of Mountain Fresh Grocery store Glenn Murer and Don Reynolds.

Mountain Fresh Grocery at 521 E. Main Street in Highlands.

Mountain Fresh Grocery offers a wide selection of wines to its customers.

Miriam Hunter hits the salad bar at Mountain Fresh Grocery.

Cupcakes are one of the many options at Mountain Fresh Grocery’s bakery.

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.

The American Woody:The first generation of depot hacks boasted open bodies constructed of wagon-style solid planking. But by the mid-1910s, closed station wagon bodies became more common and lighter construction was required. The rib-and-panel style that is familiar today made its first appearance on these vehicles and allowed for the first partially enclosed wooden station wagons with side curtains, two or more rows of seats, and side doors. These new wagons could still be considered depot hacks, but were now called Suburbans, Combinations and Country Clubs. (Versions of these names still appear today.) The lower halves of these wagonette bodies resembled the earlier versions and were now combined with a flat roof. These designs found favor with non-commercial customers, and an increasing number of firms began building them. Major manufacturers such as Ford started offering woodies through dealerships, although independent body builders performed the actual construction. The Martin Truck and Body Corp. in York, Pennsylvania, made so many bodies for Ford, Dodge and others during the 1910s and 1920s that they billed themselves as "The Largest Commercial Car Builder in the World." The golden age of the custom wood body maker ended during the Depression, as many of the small independent firms went out of business. Some reorganized and diversified, like the Kentucky Wagon Manufacturing Company, which stopped making wood Ford Model T and Model A bodies (and its own line of automobiles as the Dixie Motor Car Company) and started manufacturing truck trailers. The company is still in business today as Kentucky Trailer. The major automobile manufacturers acquired many others at fire-sale prices during this time. The fortunes of Martin Truck and Body, who called themselves "The Largest Commercial Car Builder in the World," changed dramatically during the Depression. After merging with failed carmaker Parry in 1919, Martin Truck and Body was acquired by Chevrolet in 1930 and became its first in-house commercial truck body division. Ford, with its vast timber operations near Lake Superior, was gaining experience in woody manufacturing. That experience would be put into practice in 1936 when a plant opened at Iron Mountain that built complete wood wagon bodies that were then shipped to Ford plants around the country for final assembly. While Ford was the only manufacturer building woodies from the ground up, there were still coachbuilt versions available based on GM, Chrysler, Packard, Willys, Hupmobile, Graham, Hudson, Studebaker and even American Bantam chassis. The trend toward luxury continued through the 1930s, although woody amenities lagged far behind those in production automobiles. Pontiac, for instance, did not offer full glazing until 1939. As the country began to recover economically, woodies were increasingly perceived as upscale vehicles and sales rose accordingly. Ford easily maintained its dominance, selling almost 10,000 redesigned Standard and DeLuxe station wagons in 1940 alone. Chrysler introduced its first truly car-quality woody, the Town & Country, in March of the following year. It boasted an all-steel roof and a white ash and mahogany body by Pekin Wood Products of Helena, Arkansas. With Willys, Buick, Pontiac and Plymouth all getting serious about passenger comfort in their woodies, things were about to heat up when the manufacturers were told to cease production of passenger cars and contribute to the war effort. A trickle of cars continued for a brief time, but all domestic automobile production had ended by March of 1942. Ford continued to produce a small number of Ford and Mercury woody sedans and ambulances used during the war. We reach Crystal Cove and its landmark Shake Shack and pull in to switch drivers. Remembering the earlier starting difficulty, we leave the Ford idling while photographer Joseph Puhy shoots some images. Little do we know, the ethanol-laced modern gas blend is busy vaporizing in the fuel line, a common Ford flathead V-8 problem. It happens on the uphill leaving the Shake Shack, the woodie chugging slower and slower, until it can’t chug anymore. Now we’re stranded beside the Coast Highway, with Audis and Acuras zipping past at speed. Bad scene. With no luck re-firing the engine, I resort to bump-starting it backward downhill. This works, and the ’34 has just enough power to get us turned around and find safe haven in a nearby park. But the woodie’s day is over. “I think this has cured me of wanting an old car!” Dean says, laughing. Oddly enough, another “Surf City” lyric has portended our current situation: “And if my woodie breaks down on me somewhere on the surf route/Surf City, here we come/I’ll strap my board to my back and hitch a ride in my wetsuit.” With the photo and video teams close behind, our rescue isn’t quite that dramatic, and we all safely return to the museum in modern cars, leaving the generous McPherson and his beautiful ’34 awaiting Hagerty Plus Roadside Service. The last great year of the woody was, by some accounts, 1949. Handcrafting complicated and maintenance-intensive wood frames and panels was becoming very difficult to justify in the red-hot, new-car market. The epochal Chrysler Town & Country switched to Dinoc vinyl (still available in aftermarket "wallpaper woody" kits today) with ornamental ash framing, and the 1949 Ford used all-steel construction with experimental plywood-like panels that underwent a dramatically high rate of failure. General Motors abandoned wood framing after 1948, and from 1948 through 1951, Packard produced station wagons with window framing and ornamental wood door trim by Briggs Manufacturing. The few coachbuilders that survived the Depression and World War II were again in jeopardy during the 1950s. Despite efforts to make the transition to more modern products such as hearses and other steel bodies, the wood-body manufacturers, steeped in old-world hand craftsmanship, were almost all gone by the end of the decade. Car design and manufacture, as well as the tastes of the car-buying public, were undergoing radical changes and the woody, redolent of 1930s and 1940s country clubs, fell from favor. The Chrysler Town & Country was discontinued in 1951, and while Fords continued to sell well, they now increasingly used vinyl and paint instead of real wood. The 1953 Buick wagons were the last real woodies from any major American manufacturer. Various wallpaper woodies or "vinylies" are still offered by Detroit to this day, but the age of the real woody ended in 1953. Fiberglass would come to substitute for ash and Dinoc for mahogany. It was a slow death, and the last real wood exterior trim of any kind on an American vehicle appeared on the Dodge Adventurer 150 "Li'l Red Express Truck" option available in 1978 and 1979.By the time I had my summer epiphany in San Diego, woodies were already in their second incarnation as an American icon. Furniture makers constructed the first of them on truck frames in the late 1920s. The car replaced the horse-drawn vehicles–jitneys or hacks–that had hauled passengers from train depots to hotels. Woodies were, literally, “station wagons,” and you’ll see them turn up. In Southern California, the place to see any style in wood cars is the annual Wavecrest meeting, held every September at Moonlight Beach near San Diego. Trophies are given for Best 1960s Surfing Woodie and Best Hot Rod Woodie. There are big-money restorations and Model A’s with rotting wood, Buick Estate Wagons with fewer than 50,000 miles on the odometer and more Town and Country wagons than Pasadena’s Rose Parade. Lovely as these ghosts are, there’s nothing that can duplicate your first time. Nearly 40 years ago, on the afternoon when I saw that first woodie in a San Diego gas station, I was just way to my part-time job in a suit and tie. What I watched from across the street was a preview of another kind of life, one that was raw and vital, one where a whole world was spread out along the coast waiting to be discovered. It was a moment that changed my life–because that day I quit my job and started surfing.