Two hurricanes couldn’t keep Jim Brown and his family from sticking with their friends and serving their customers. Though buildings and products were lost, they rebuilt their business, Brown’s Food Center, and continue to thrive, learning along the way what it takes to serve their community.
Situated on La. 27 along the Creole Nature Trail in Hackberry and on Gulf Highway in Grand Lake, these independent family-owned businesses feature prominently in their communities because of what they provide -- from breakfasts and lunches served from their deli in the absence of nearby restaurants, to supplies for hunters, fishermen, and shrimpers, and even tips on the best places to go crabbing.
The Hackberry store opened in 1978 as a 3600-square-foot building purchased by Brown from his brother Frank, who had purchased the property in 1976. Jim had graduated from McNeese State University in 1977 and intended to work as a coach or teacher but instead worked at Conoco, until Frank approached him with the Hackberry property. Jim said, "Why not?”
"It’s been a learning curve since I started, and it continues to be a learning curve,” he said.
In 1983, Brown expanded the Hackberry grocery store to 10,000 square feet and created a supermarket that today employs 38 people. Through lifelong learning, attendance at seminars, and plenty of advice and encouragement from vendors and customers, Jim and his family grew Brown’s into a successful business by keeping pace with customers’ needs. They cater to the local fishermen, hunters, tourists along the Creole Nature Trail, as well as the residents of Hackberry by selling gasoline, snacks and drinks, grocery staples and other provisions. Another key -- they treat their employees well. "Always treat your employees like you want to be treated,” Jim said. "I put myself in their shoes because I’ve been there before, and I’ve worked many jobs along the way.”
Among Jim’s employees are his children; his daughter Jamie, who handles office work, and his sons Chris and Brian, who not only help manage the stores but also work Brown’s meat market, making it a staple service of which Jim is particularly proud. "Our meat departments -- I would compare them to anybody in Southwest Louisiana. I would say ours is equal to or better than anybody around.”
The secret to their market, according to Jim, comes from good quality meats and prepared specialty meats, such as the Hackberry location’s Tomahawk Ribeye, a 2-foot-long cut of bone-in beef customers often order for special occasions.
The Browns have been tested by hurricane disasters twice. In 2005 Hurricane Rita flattened both a grocery and convenience store in Cameron which Brown and his brother Pat had opened in 1991 and 2000, respectively. Only months before Rita devastated Southwest Louisiana, the brothers had also opened a branch on Nelson Road in Lake Charles. The combined loss of the Cameron stores and the sheer amount of wasted product from the Nelson Rd location prompted the brothers to sell the Lake Charles store. The Hackberry store fared much better than the other locations during Rita, and in 2007 Jim and Pat purchased a building in Grand Lake for a new store.
Then Hurricane Ike barreled in, September 2008. The Hackberry location experienced flooding like never before. Water climbed up to 18 inches inside the store, while the Grand Lake location remained dry. With the help of their community, who no doubt wanted their neighborhood grocery store back, the Hackberry store was back in operation by October.
With industrial projects on the horizon for the Southwest Louisiana, the Hackberry community will continue to develop. Jim Brown and his family will be there to serve them. "I really enjoy working with my family,” Jim said. "That’s really one of the best things I like about it. The community has grown, and we’re blessed right now because of all the new people coming in.”