It’s just another day at Tinnell’s Finer Foods. A customer stops her shopping and gives owner Rett Ward a big hug. She’s in Roanoke for a brief time and had to come in and pick up some of her favorites. She, Ward and his wife, Maria, spent a few minutes catching up. The exchange is not unusual for the 80-year-old grocery store that has been a fixture in South Roanoke for several generations. And not surprising for a store that posts customers’ holiday cards every year.
Ward’s grandfather, Buddy Tinnell, opened the store on Marshall Avenue in 1937. Ward said he sold the family station wagon to buy the first groceries. The store moved to South Roanoke in the late 1940s, he said and opened in the building next door, which houses Garland’s. A Mick-or-Mack was in Tinnell’s current location. When it moved out, Tinnell’s moved in. Buddy Tinnell died in the store in 1966. His wife, Kitty, kept it until 2000 when Ward bought it from her. He had worked at the store through high school and college.
When he took over, Ward brought automation to the checkout and charge accounts. He also brought in wine.
“It’s one of my passions,” he said, relating a story when he told his grandmother wine was outselling milk. “She was so mad,” he said, “and reminded me ‘there’s a church across the street!’”
Ward also has moved the store into selling specialty items, with a focus on local products, such as Gunther’s Gourmet, Homestead Creamery and maple syrup from Highland County. In fact, he says, they were one of the first retailers to sell Homestead Creamery products. Maria Ward says she loves going someplace and discovering a new product that they could start selling.
The store’s support of local and regional products “gives other small businesses a chance to be promoted,” Christina Hall, store manager, says.
Tinnell’s offers fresh produce—it’s not uncommon to find one of the employees snapping beans during the summer—as well as a large assortment of cheeses and bakery items from local bakeries. And their famous pimento cheese and ham biscuits. Ward says the pimento cheese is his grandmother’s recipe.
“She put herself through Radford selling pimento cheese and ham biscuits,” he says.
Ward said their fresh products are among their biggest sellers. “We were local and farm-to-table” before anyone knew what that was.
Not surprisingly, the meat counter is a popular spot, especially around holidays. Maria Ward said they are starting to carry more fish, shrimp and scallops. The “fish of the week” feature every Tuesday is a relatively new idea.
Along with the fish, “we give them a recipe and tell them how to make it,” she says.
Wine and craft beers also are popular items.
“Rett has a good palette,” Maria Ward says of her husband’s wine choices. The store offers a wide selection with varying price points. Weekly wine tastings and the Wine of the Month Club keep customers engaged.
Ward admits that he doesn’t expect his customers to buy 100 percent of their groceries at Tinnell’s and that it’s a challenge to stock enough items like paper towels and cat food to keep them happy. He and the staff make a point of listening to customers and will try to bring in an item someone wants.
“If someone asks for it, we’ll get it, he says.
Maria, herself, is a great example of that philosophy. When they bought the store, their son, Everett was 3 months old, and they didn’t sell diapers. That quickly changed, and diapers are still on the shelf.
As Tinnell’s reaches its 80th anniversary, the Wards and Hall are looking forward and back at the same time.
“Our customers are generational,” Hall says. “It’s a huge community of people.”
The business is generational, too. The Ward’s two children, Everett and Jane, are the fourth generation to work there.
“In our 80 years, we’ve seen a ton of grocery stores come and go. We’re a part of the neighborhood, and we’re foodies,” Ward says. “We’re always having to change, to figure out what makes them come in the door.”
Tinnell’s is a family business, says Hall.
“Our goal as staff is to make sure we treat our customers like family. The future is educating the new customer on what’s exciting.”
When Tinnell’s opened, Ward says, there were four grocery stores in South Roanoke.
“We’re excited in our 80th year to be working on new ideas.”