Customers mourn closing of Gretna supermarket

Just after 1 p.m. Friday, after picking up a few items, 91-year-old Adelaide Lohrke stopped by the customer service counter at Casey Jones Supermarket in Gretna to plant a kiss on the cheek of owner Kirk Jones.

It’s still a couple of weeks before the beloved grocery in the Westside Shopping Center will close for good, but with 50 years of history coming to an end, every day feels like a good day to say thank you.

“It’s a family,” said Louann Dugas, a regular customer who once worked at the store as a cashier. “These people don’t come and go and just shop sales. There are people in this store today that I checked out almost 30 years ago.”

The store opened in 1964 on Fifth Street, founded by Kirk Jones’ father, Casey Jones. Ten years later, it moved to its current location, and over the decades, it has become part of the daily lives of many in Gretna.

After Hurricane Katrina, as soon as the store finally got its phone service reconnected, the phone immediately began ringing nonstop with calls from evacuated residents trying to find out when they could come home to their local supermarket.

But word got out early last fall that the shopping center’s Texas owners were not going to renew Casey Jones’ lease. Instead, they signed a deal with Rouses Supermarket, which is building a store next door.

The long lead time before the April 30 closing date has allowed business to go on as usual. There are no “going out of business” signs, and the shelves remain fully stocked. Jones said the store will stock supplies for a normal Easter and hold its regular sales before it begins preparing to close.

“I think it hasn’t hit a lot of people yet,” General Manager Henry Chang said of the 63-member staff. “Some of us have been kind of busy getting ready for it, but I think there’s going to be a lot of people sad.”

“Some of us have been together so long,” added Chang, who was hired by the elder Jones 37 years ago to work the dairy section.

Meat department manager James McElwee has been there for almost three decades.

Emotions have definitely begun to stir among customers.

“When I come in here, I go home and cry,” Lohrke said. “I had said I was going to be out of town when they close … because I know that I’m going to cry. You have no idea how I feel. Nobody does.”

Actually, many do.

Dugas met her husband, Ben, then a bag boy, the day she started working at Casey Jones in 1982.

The two used to buy chips, bread and sandwich meat and spend their lunches on the swing set in a nearby backyard.

“I fell in love with my husband looking at him down aisle 10,” she recalled.

“As a cashier working at 11 o’clock and being the low person on the totem pole, I worked the No. 2 register … and the No. 2 register looked right down aisle 10, and he used to hang out by the meat department doors.”

Shopper Denise Manuel said that in addition to the friendly staff, she likes the fact that Casey Jones offers a lot of dollar items.

About 20 percent of its revenue comes from EBT cards, still known as food stamps by some, and some shoppers are worried about the area’s low-income households.

“This is a good store,” Lohrke said. “It doesn’t have a lot of fancy extras, but you’ve got a lot of working people, poor people and elderly people on fixed incomes and on relief here.”

Rouses, which has its own humble roots in Thibodaux dating back to 1923, finds itself in a peculiar situation as its 44,000-square-foot store under construction looms over Casey Jones.

It draws a considerable amount of ire from some customers — Lohrke said she’s been praying a novena that the store won’t be successful, and both she and Dugas say they’ll shop elsewhere — even though it was Westside Shopping Center owner Realm Realtors that decided not to renew Casey Jones’ lease.

Most customers likely will adjust to the new retail landscape.

Keith Ortolano, who has been shopping at Casey Jones since it was on Fifth Street, said he shops at other Rouses stores now and will shop at the new one.

He’s sad to see Casey Jones go, but, he said, “It’s business. What are you going to do?”

Jones said that after the store closes, he may put his real estate license to good use, and he noted he owns several strip malls.

He wouldn’t rule out finding a new location for Casey Jones, but he said the market conditions would have to be right.

The loss of Casey Jones, the arrival of Rouses and — if informed speculation pans out — a new Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market will change the local grocery market considerably, Jones said.

For now, though, Jones and his managers continue to keep the shelves stocked while preparing for the post-Easter inventory liquidation sale.

On Wednesday night, he accepted the kind words of the Gretna City Council, which issued a proclamation in honor of the store.

Dugas said she is upset the city didn’t do more to keep Casey Jones open, though Jones and Chang don’t discuss it.

Rouses likely will bring more shoppers — and additional sales tax dollars — into Gretna, which has been coping with the consequences of stagnant retail spending.

Meanwhile, Jones and his employees will continue to say their goodbyes and try to accommodate customers who regularly ask if they can take home a sign or a decorative element as a keepsake.

Jones, in fact, is working on donating some of the signs to local charities to be auctioned off to people who want to keep a little bit of Gretna’s history.