Editor’s Note: As part of our Triangle Guide to Groceries, RaleighCo’s Kendra Stowe recently published a review of Harris Teeter. It will come as no surprise to anyone who does their grocery shopping at one of their stores regularly that scores were high, and Kendra spoke of her love for the store by listing the many nicknames she has for it, including HT, Hairy Teeter and The Teet.
That got the attention of one of our readers, Waxhaw’s Beverly Harris Tatum, the granddaughter of Harris-Teeter founder William Thomas Harris. In the greatest letter to the editor we’ve ever received, she respectfully asked that we not leave “Harris” out when nicknaming the supermarket chain. Here, in its entirety, is Ms. Tatum’s letter:
My grandfather was the Harris of Harris-Teeter. He opened his first store, a dry goods store, since there was no refrigeration until WWII. The first very supermarket was just beautifully renovated a couple of years ago, at its’ same location. They used some of the old wooden produce bins and the wooden floor for the ceiling. Just amazing. It is where we shopped growing up.
Grandpa began expanding Harris Supermarkets all around Charlotte. It was a family business for anyone who wanted to work there. He had 10 brothers and sisters. Most had moved to Charlotte from South Georgia where they all grew up. I had Great Uncles and Uncles-in Law as store managers. One Great Aunt ran Accounting (Grandpa went with who was the best for the job and it wasn’t always a man). My Grandmother’s sister was Grandpa’s personal secretary and so it went.
Grandpa would offer a job to anyone who needed one but it was an opportunity as he saw it. He brought you in and now it was up to you to succeed.
So many of today’s managers started working for Harris-Teeter as bag-boys and never left.
As the stores began to multiply, it frustrated Grandpa having to wait on distributors to bring the goods he would sell. He wanted the shelves full all the time. So, in the 1960s, Grandpa met with Mr. Teeter who had a few grocery stores in the Mooresville area. They both wanted their own warehouse to store their own food and get it out to the stores immediately as it was needed. So, they merged, put together their money, and built the warehouse. The corporate office was on the front of it.
Mr. Teeter never really was involved in the day-to-day business affairs and only came to Charlotte for important meetings. He was a character. He still thought of his stores as “his” and if Harris-Teeter would run corn on sale for 12 cents, he would run it for 10 cents in the Mooresville stores! Grandpa just let it go.
I remember every inch of the warehouse and the corporate office and who was where. My Great Aunt tried to keep me out of Grandpa’s office during office hours so I would wait outside the door to Grandpa’s front office and wait for the phone to ring. I would then take off running for his door and going running right in, closed or not, and he would always wave me over to come sit on his lap. He could be on a phone call or in the middle of a business meeting with other men there. It didn’t matter to him and I was quiet going through the drawer where I knew he kept his Juicy Fruit gum. He had used it as his means to stop smoking. He had boxes of it in his side table by his chair in the den at their house.
His pet nickname for me was “Chicken” and he would call to me and say “How ya doing, Chicken?” and wave me over for a hug that squeezed the breath out of me even as an adult.
W.T, Bill, was a great man. I adored him and would sit silently and listen to him talk with other adults. He was firm in his principles and a man of his word. Respected greatly throughout Charlotte and never turned down an offer to serve when he thought he could help the growing community of Charlotte.
Head of Board of County Commissioners when we were court-ordered to desegregate the schools and he got it done. President of the Chamber of Commerce. Fought for and got Charlotte’s Symphony Orchestra, the first mental health clinic, and is the main reason we got kindergarten into every elementary school in NC. I was interviewing his wing man on that endeavor. Grandpa did not believe in alcohol and refused to sell it in the stores. He didn’t drink but Mr. Spangler did so they went out to all 100 counties. Mr. Spangler told me he would get them “a little liquored up” and Grandpa would “start talking about all the poor little children and the education they needed and have them the county men in tears and signing up to support it”.
When it did make it through the Legislature it passed easily and kindergarten came to be.
There are long lists of other projects and acts of a good man I never knew about until after he was gone. He believed in service and he gave it all for the betterment of the community, our church, and many in need. He had so many plaques of recognition and gratitude. Grandmother hung them all around the study’s walls. He hated it. He didn’t want her to do it and we knew it so we would tease him about the “Shrine” in the study!
I am always watching when I go into Harris-Teeters anywhere to see how clean they are, the greeting when you come into the store, the stocked shelves, and the customer service going on around me. I rarely have seen any store I felt was below his standards.
He would like to hear you rate the quality of Harris-Teeter’s products and, most of all, customer service. It was the foundation of his success and he would help customers himself if he were out in a store. He just loved it.
In fact, after he “retired” – more like he was around the house a couple of hours a day – he would go missing and Grandmother could not figure out where he was. She would call up to the Cotswold store which was nearest to their house asking their friend who worked there if he had seen him. He would laugh and say “yep, he is right here, over bagging groceries, and have a great time talking with the customers”.
I was the oldest grandchild in Charlotte and my brother was 8 years younger than me. I was always at their house. My great-grandmother lived there with them. (I told you he was a good man!). There was always something to do there and just hanging out watching Grandmother and Nanny go through their routine was just fine.
On Sundays and Wednesdays I went to church with them as Grandpa was a man of strong faith and we were good Southern Baptists – who were there whenever the doors were and more.
Grandpa was a force of nature. He had so much charisma you just knew it when he walked into a room. He told great stories, had a hilarious sense of humor, which he got from his Mother. I grew up knowing that great-grandmother too. When he spoke, people listened but he listened too. He wanted the best solution to whatever the issue was but he had no patience for endless meetings. Once everyone agreed on how to go forward, that was it, he wanted to get it underway, get it done and keep moving the same way with other projects.
When Grandpa ran for public office the first time he didn’t spend a nickel on advertising or a “campaign”. People learned from the newspaper he was running and he was elected with the most votes his first time.
I always remember him telling me “Beverly, if you ever give away your integrity, you can never get it back”. That has stayed with me my entire life.
My maternal grandparents were more like parents to me. I stayed with them a lot when my parents were finishing college and when mother did further educational pursuits. I couldn’t have loved them more.
No one was more blessed than I was to grow up with all 4 grandparents and 2 great-grandmothers. My great-grandmothers were even at my first wedding!
My grandparents were healthy, busy, focused, gave to others, and mentally sharp until the day they each died.
I lost Grandpa when I was 32. He had been such a mainstay of my life I just never considered he would die. He had died while making a speech at the Southern Baptist Convention on Greensboro on the behalf of Wingate College; of which he had been on their Board of Directors since 1957.
It was an aortic aneurysm and there was nothing they could do to save him. I thought my mother was lying to me. There was no way a man like Grandpa could just die. He was still out there fighting for the causes and solutions he believed in.
I was devastated. Two nights of visitation with people waiting for hours to speak to Grandmother and the rest of us. We heard stories we never knew from people we had never met about what Grandpa had done for them. It made me miss him more.
Our church could hold around 1500 people and there was standing-room-only at his funeral. The eulogies were incredible from men who had known him for so many years and from so many different areas where he had given his time. Wonderful stories were told and a lot of laughter from Grandpa’s adventures. It was all so him and so perfect. Befitting a great man who was just my Grandpa.
I still grieve for him even though he died in November 1989. The worst was not over. The next year, the same week in November, I lost my favorite Great-Aunt, the next November 7th I lost my paternal grandfather, and the next November 7th I lost Grandmother. The ground beneath my feet was gone. I still hate November and try to be somewhere else.
Harris-Teeter finally did a “Legacy” book to document the history of Harris-Teeter’s 50th anniversary. I worked with corporate on it for 18 months. I have most of the old pictures and documents and knew all the history and stories. It was a labor of love. It was beautifully done and I was amazed they had left my writings on Grandpa verbatim.
You are at liberty to call Harris-Teeter what you will but the family doesn’t like it just being called by some form of “Teeter” because it was never about him. It was Grandpa and his business legacy that finds it where it is today.
Thanks for listening! I never get tired of talking about my grandparents. I’m working on a book on Grandpa but his works were so overwhelming it can bog me down. I also want to do it perfectly – another irritating trait of mine – so it is creeping along. My favorite occurrences are sometimes waking up with a whole section pre-written in my head. I rush downstairs and just type it as I see it in my head. They are the best sections so I think Grandpa may have a lot to do with it!
Editor’s Note: Ms. Tatum, thank you for sharing a history of what’s become an important part of North Carolina life. Good luck with the book. Let us know when it’s ready–we’d love to help you sell a few copies. And from here on it, it’ll be “The Harris-T’s” to us.