Crozet’s Hometown Grocery

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red-front-c1960By Clover Carroll

The Crozet Great Valu is a local family business that has stood the test of time. A Crozet institution since 1946, this hometown grocery store that both buys and employs local has been built with love and dedication by three generations of the Wagner family and has established a reputation for excellence. Since it was incorporated in 1977, the store has been owned by many of the store’s employees who serve as its stockholders. No wonder they care so much about customer service and the quality of their product! Who among us doesn’t love that rare sense of community and personal service every time we shop at the store? Who doesn’t appreciate having their bags carried to the car, or being trusted while they run home for the checkbook? This is a store where customers and staff know each other, where product requests are honored, and where you can count on finding fresh local fruit, bread, honey, and more. The CGV and local businesses like it are part of what gives the town of Crozet its character and makes it such a special place to live.

The store got its start in 1929 as an A&P. At that time it was located in The Square, sharing with the Crozet Drug Store the corner building that until recently housed Uncle Charlie’s. When the A&P closed in 1946, Jack Wagner—who had moved from Waynesboro to work at the A&P—partnered with Albert Sandridge and Dabney Via to open the Red Front Grocery in the same location, while Jack’s wife Nannie ran the Five & Dime next door. The Red Front continued to serve the growing Crozet population until 1967, when it gave up its lease to the expanding Crozet Drug Store. But in the meantime, the partnership decided in 1965 to open an IGA (Independent Grocers’ Alliance) franchise around the corner in the new strip mall. The store was originally about half its present size, located at the far end of the strip and stopping at the yellow posts that now occupy the cereal aisle. Continuing to grow and thrive, the Crozet IGA became incorporated in 1977, with V.L. James, current manager of the meat department, Agnew Morris, and Jack’s son Lyle becoming major stockholders. In 1979 they expanded the store to its present size, and about ten years ago, the IGA franchise was dropped and Richfood created the Great Valu franchise.

The emphasis on hard work and service is partly the result of current proprietor and manager of the CGV, Jean Wagner, who became the principal stockholder after her husband Lyle passed away in 2005. Jean’s life has been intimately connected with the Crozet Great Valu from the start. Working from home, Jean started her business career by keeping the books for her father-in-law, Jack Wagner—and she has never looked back. She passed the accounting function to Agnew Morris and Dabney Via, and when her youngest child started school, she began to work at the store two days a week, doing everything from cash register to managing inventory. She still remembers hearing Jack, Charlie Smith, and Jack Apperson talk politics and entertain the customers by telling jokes and stories. As her children grew, they too became involved in the business, with Greg handling the computers and David managing daily business. Jack and Nannie Wagner both died in 1988, and management passed to Lyle.

But besides her business acumen, Jean Wagner has other talents that many don’t know about. Moving to Crozet from Staunton at the age of 9 when her father became part owner of Trimble’s Dry Cleaners, the then Jean Trimble began taking piano lessons from Mrs. James Clark, who had a studio behind the Gillums’ house on St. George Ave. Jean and other piano students were allowed to leave Crozet Elementary School during the day to walk across the creek to the studio for their lessons. She continued to study piano for nine years, until she graduated from Albemarle High School, where she met Lyle Wagner. By the time she returned to Crozet after majoring in music at a Virginia college, Jean had become an accomplished pianist. She served as organist and choir master at Emmanual Episcopal Church in Greenwood for ten years, and later helped to supplement the music program and put on shows at Crozet Elementary School. Currently Jean carries on her love of music by singing alto in Schola Cantorum, a Waynesboro music group to which her sister also belongs. In 1963, Jean married Lyle Wagner, and Greg was born in 1967, the same year the Crozet Great Valu opened. David was born a few years later and still works at the store.

Over the years, the Crozet Great Valu has become a downtown Crozet institution. Jean has maintained the same climate of personal service set by Jack in the ’50s and ’60s, carried on by Lyle in the ’70s, and continued by the stockholder/employees to this day.

“I’ve always followed what my father-in-law Jack Wagner taught me: ‘There’s a grocery store on every corner; the one thing that sets us apart is service.’” And it shows! As your groceries are bagged and carried to your car, you can enjoy a chat with one of the many WAHS students or graduates—like Eric White, Slava, or John Shannon, to name a few—who work as baggers and often stay to become checkers and stockmen or to work their way through college. Whatever product you may be missing, your request will be honored. Working stockholders lend the store a rare sense of continuity—not only have most of the employees worked there for years, but they probably grew up in Crozet. What a pleasure it is to be served by neighbors, like getting produce help from Pete Maupin, wine advice from Jessie McDaniel, meat cut to order by V. L. James, help in frozen foods from Darrin Dance, or help finding just the right ingredient from inventory manager Brad Knight—and these are only a few of the employees who make everyone welcome and give the store its friendly character.

You can find everything you want at the CGV, from cage-free eggs to a range of international wines to Celestial Seasonings teas. Jean and her predecessors have always made a point of buying local whenever possible, meaning that our purchases not only support the local economy but also are fresher and more nutritious than products shipped from across the country or beyond. You’ll find apples and peaches from Chiles Orchard, freshly baked breads from Goodwin Farms in Afton, raw honey from the Golden Angels Apiary in Singer’s Glen, tofu from Twin Oaks, granola from Innisfree, breads and cookies from the Mission Bakeshop, and hummus and salsa from Red Hill Farm. Recently, the CGV has added a natural and organic food section managed by Fabienne Swanson, including freshly ground organic coffee from the Righteous Bean in Afton and bulk rice, lentils, nuts, and sea salt in bins purchased from Fabulous Foods. Fresh seafood has also been added now that they found a reliable source from Northern Virginia—the same vendor that supplies Fardowners Restaurant.

A lot has changed from the post-war Red Front to the modern, health-oriented CGV. One thing that hasn’t changed in all those years, however, is the continuity of proprietorship, long-term employees, and superior, friendly service. While Jean has some concerns about how the new Crozet Station will affect business during the construction phase, with her usual practical and positive outlook she believes that in the long run it will improve business for everyone in the shopping center. When asked about her plans for retirement, Jean smiles ruefully. “I don’t think about retirement so much as just slowing down.” And that’s good news for her customers. We are lucky to have such a warm, friendly, local, family business in the heart of Crozet. As one customer said to a store employee: “You take care of me better than anybody else does.”