Iconic island grocery, Piggly Wiggly, celebrates 50 years

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The Martin family, with patriarch Gene wearing the Santa hat, at a recent gathering. "My dad is 86 years old and still works, stocking on a milk crate," said David Martin, to the left of Gene. The family invites former customers and employees to stop by t

It might be hard to imagine now, but when Gene Martin purchased Piggly Wiggly, then called Red & White, it was surrounded by dirt roads and a Coligny Plaza still in its infancy.

Martin bought the store from Robert McKibben, who had bought it from Coligny Plaza founders Norris and Lois Richardson. It was this supermarket, which they had called Forest Beach Supermarket, that had started their vision for Hilton Head's downtown.

When the Martin family took over the store in 1969, Coligny Plaza consisted of a handful of shops: a car wash, a barber shop and a drug store that opened the same year, said Gene's son David, who now runs the store. It became a Piggly Wiggly in 1992.

As Coligny grew around it, the store expanded and entrenched itself in the community through service and selflessness.

During the real estate crash of 1973, the elder Martin opened up charge accounts to keep families afloat during the crisis. It's one of the many selfless deeds noted when Gene Martin was named to the Hilton Head Rotary Hall of Fame last year (alongside, coincidentally, Norris Richardson).

Said David Martin, "At least 6 or 8 people came up to me on that day and said, 'You know Dave, without your dad giving us food, my children would have starved."

The store still has in-house charge accounts for some customers.

In the days following Hurricane Matthew, David Martin continued Piggly Wiggly's tradition of being there for the community, guiding customers by flashlight to the necessities in a building without power.

It's that community spirit that has made Piggly Wiggly an endearing and enduring part of Hilton Head Island's cultural fabric. But beyond that, it's the way Martin maintains a hometown feel on and island that has grown up around his store. It's a welcoming atmosphere that has created generations of loyal customers.

"We get Christmas cards from people with Piggly Wiggly T-Shirts on. People I don't even know," Martin said with a laugh. "They tell me how much they appreciate their experience coming in. How when their family gets together at Thanksgiving, they talk about coming to Piggly Wiggly. They walk in barefoot and I have Jimmy Buffett playing. ... The word 'fun' comes up all the time. Fun and funky."

Lowcountry resident Barry Kaufman is a freelance writer.

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