Small-town store becomes an epicurean destination

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by Marjolijn Bijlefeld

Ken Thompson was shopping at the Sperryville Corner Store in 2000 when he overheard owner Randolph Clater tell another customer that he’d sell the small grocery store if offered a good deal. Thompson, who had retired to the area a few years earlier, stepped up to pay and asked Clater if he was serious. Within days, they shook hands on a $275,000 deal.

Thompson and his wife, Mary, used their new enterprise to lure their son Andrew and his family to Sperryville, a town of about 1,400 in Rappahannock County. “Pop, I’ve never even worked at a grocery store,” Ken remembers his son saying.

But that hasn’t stopped the Thompsons from dramatically boosting grocery sales and opening other businesses on the site. The grocery store deal included its building and two attached structures, all constructed about 1850. In the past five years, the Thompsons have expanded the store and renovated the two dilapidated buildings, which had been used for storage. In 2004, they opened the Thornton River Grille, a lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch restaurant. In late 2006, the second building became a pizza parlor called Rudy’s — in honor of former owner Clater, known to his friends as “Rudy.” (Clater remains an employee, one of about two dozen.)

The store expansion required the Thompsons to strike a balance between old and new. Some local residents cherished the historic significance of the store and wanted it to stay the same. Nonetheless, many of them drove 25 miles to Culpeper to buy groceries.  “We would ask customers what they wanted and why they shopped in other towns,” says Ken. The Thompsons began to add those items from local farms, bakeries and other suppliers, and they learned they could even get fresh seafood daily because they’re just five miles from the five-star Inn at Little Washington.

The expanded offerings required more space. A 900-square-foot addition to the back of the store was completed in July. The store still features its original flooring and counters, but the back of the store is thoroughly modern. It features organic produce and specialty foods including cheeses, breads, spices, oils, wine and beer.  The result is an epicurean destination that keeps year-round residents and weekend visitors shopping in Sperryville.

Mike Leake, president of the Rappahannock National Bank, for example, says he visits Thompsons’ businesses three or four times each week. “But it’s not unheard of to come in three times a day. I could come to the store for coffee and a newspaper or a gallon of milk, and then come to the Grille for a business lunch and pick up a pizza on the way home,” he says.

The store has been a fixture in Leake’s life. “When I was a kid, I’d come in to pick out an ice cream cone. Now I come in to pick out a bottle of wine.”

The changes to the store are paying off. Ken tracks revenue in four-week blocks so he can compare benchmarks to the same period the year before. “We saw a jump of almost 50 percent from the expanded store. It’s bringing us more people, and people are spending more. People used to pay in cash; now they’re putting $120 purchases on credit cards,” he says.

He credits several factors for the growth. Hiring consultants kept him from making mistakes. For example, a consultant encouraged the Thompsons to create a higher-end restaurant than they originally envisioned. The Thompsons also look for synergies; the restaurant buys its meat from the grocery store, and the store sells desserts from the restaurant. “We also have gained from the misfortunes of others,” Ken says. “Some restaurants have closed, and there’s no other pizza place between here and Culpeper.”

Plus, Ken, a former software engineer who was part owner of a trucking software company, created dashboard metrics so he can track daily numbers. “We live and die by metrics, especially cost-of-goods and payroll. With regular reports, we can correct quickly,” he says.

One more expansion is scheduled for spring. Andrew, his wife Dana and their son Will moved out of the second-floor residence above the store so that space and the deck can used for additional restaurant seating.

The Thompsons held an open house last fall to celebrate their growth. “We sold bratwurst and beer for $1 each. We were mobbed,” Ken says. 

2008 Virginia Small Business Success Story of the Year
Sperryville Corner Store

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