At times, it seems Tom Brierley isn’t quite sure how he suddenly went from long-time employee to big boss at Ken’s Korner Red Apple Market.
If not for his friendly rapport with previous store owner, Jim Springer, who wanted to retire, perhaps he’d still just be “Tom the Butcher.”
“He was working to sell it and not finding a whole lot of interest so one day I just said, ‘I should buy it.’ And he said, ‘Yes, you should,’” Brierley recalled of that fateful conversation/joking off-hand remark.
“Next thing I know I’m waiting for someone to say ‘no’ during the whole process, to the liquor license or the small business loan. They kept saying ‘yes.’ Now, oh my goodness, I own the store.”
Brierley is described as humble and more of a behind-the-scenes guy by his staff. But he’s proud of the store and he has hopes of making it a better neighbor, both in business and community spirit.
The words “New Ownership” are brightly painted on the storefront window. It’s also announced in the store’s weekly mailer, which is bigger and more jam-packed with sales than previous fliers.
Brierley admits he inherited a lot of challenges and preconceived notions with the business.
“We’ve got a bad reputation right now and I’m looking to change that,” he said. “We started a new two-page ad, there’s a lot more items and lower prices. I thought the pricing was way too high.”
All day long Thursday, customers and vendors came up and congratulated Brierley, a big, burly guy whose physique fits his long-held status as the guy who knows chops and cuts, flanks and fillets.
For the past 13 years, he’s been a steady presence at the Red Apple’s meat department, wrapping up cuts of beef, pork and chicken and advising customers on roasting and grilling.
“I was surprised to hear it was Tom who bought it,” remarked customer Jean Burk, while cashier Holly Magnuson rang up purchases. “He is going to do great.”
Lower prices, some interior sprucing up and more involvement with the community are among Brierley’s goals that he set after consulting with his staff of 22 employees.
“I have an amazing crew here,” he said. “Everybody’s been really positive, even with instituting new rules, such as having to wear new uniforms.”
At 20,000 square feet, the Clinton store seems vast compared with some modern shoebox-size grocery stores in cities short on space. Besides the usual aisles of groceries and household needs, there’s a deli, super-sized selection of beer, wine and liquor and a whale-sized wall of refrigerated beer in the back.
“Yep, we do sell a lot of beer here,” comments Brierley as he heads for the check out stand to help bag groceries.
One of the ideas of the new boss is a grill out front in the summer wafting with the smell of hot dogs.
“I want to be more involved with the community,” Brierley said. “I’m thinking a hot dog and a Coke for $2 out front with 100 percent of the proceeds going to charity and every week, the store will donate to a different charity.”
Brierley is leaving many details up to store manager Robin Thompson, whom he dubs “my saving grace.”
He called the former Red Apple employee in Sacramento, where she’d moved to in 2015, and asked her if she wanted to come back to Whidbey.
“I said I did but there’s just no work,” Thompson recalled. “Then he asked me, ‘what if there were a job?’ So I’m back.”
Word is getting out about the old store with a new attitude and owner.
“When that first flier came out this week, it was busy,” said Belinda Locke, who has worked at the store since 2002. “Some people thought a big company bought us out but it’s Tom, it’s family.”
Faithful employees such as Locke are one of the store’s selling points, Thompson observed.