With millions of brightly colored, provocatively designed, meticulously arranged bits of data floating around in our fields of vision daily, it’s funny what’ll catch your eye.
Speeding down Montclair Road in pursuit of a Milo’s tea Sunday, I suddenly noticed a going-out-of-business banner fluttering from the parapets of Bruno’s. That drew my gaze to something else I hadn’t noticed there for a long time: cars in the parking lot. It was a demonstration of the latest American mercantile paradox, namely that the best way to attract customers to your store is to close the store.
Grocery industry experts will tell you that Bruno’s had this coming for a long time, but such conventional wisdom scarcely allays the realization that one more iconic Birmingham brand is exiting the marketplace. It had a great run, but in the end, Bruno’s winds up in the same Mall-halla wherein dwell the ghosts of Magic City supermarkets past — Hill’s, Liberty, Colonial, A&P.
I remember the first time the Bruno’s chain was placed in the hands of management disinterested in its heritage. From just one supermarket started in 1932 with a $600 grubstake, by 1991 the Bruno family had expanded its holdings to more than 250 grocery stores with names like Food World, Food Fair, Foodmax and, of course, Bruno’s. That year, though, two of the founding Brunos were killed in a plane crash, and by the mid-‘90s, a chain-gobbling combine called Kohlberg Kravis Roberts had bought up 97 percent of the publicly-traded company for a billion dollars.
Shoppers noticed a difference when the out-of-towners took over. The number one beef on a marketing survey taken shortly after KKR started streamlining Bruno’s operations to improve the bottom line was a perception of less customer service. This would have made old Mr. Vincent, the original Bruno, apoplectic, for the motto of the first little store he started in the maw of the Depression was “The customer is king.”
Some say it was bad management, others say stiff competition, but for whatever reason, the firm that used to sell billions of dollars’ worth of goods each year filed for bankruptcy in 1997. In 2001, another international conglomerate bought up Bruno’s, but nothing could stave off the inevitable, which turned out to be Southern Family Markets buying up what was left of the chain at auction two weeks ago for a bargain $45 million.
Sic transit grocery mundi.
This weekend, some of us will remember the old stores when that grandiose golf tournament tees up at Ross Bridge under the banner of Regions Bank. Back when it was the Bruno’s Memorial Classic, it filled galleries to follow the likes of Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Nowadays, Nick Price and Fred Funk generate the star power on the Champions Tour.
Then again, Regions is having a little trouble with its own luster, sinking to #280 in the annual Fortune 500 and singled out by government “stress tests” as needing $400 million in new capital and $2.5 billion in common equity, according to the Wall Street Journal.
As a sign of how tough times are, Regions CEO Dowd Ritter barely made more last year than Bernhard Langer, top money winner on the Champions Tour, who took home $2,035,073. Then again, Bernhard wasn’t stuck with a portfolio full of Regions Financial shares...
You know who we haven’t seen much of during this phase of the financial crisis? Friend of banksters Spencer Bachus, who is still, as far as we know, the ranking Republican on the House Financial Services Committee. He had an ever-rising profile when the house of cards started collapsing last year, culminating in his widely discussed discovery last month of 17 socialists among his peers in Congress. Since then, still short on names to match his allegation, Spencer has become an invisible man to the national media, but that hasn’t stopped him from issuing statements expressing his concerns about Jefferson County municipal bonds and bank stress tests.
In the latter, the Vestavia Hillsian, calling for an exit strategy for taxpayer bailouts, said, “Working people... deserve nothing less.” I love it when Spencer gets all Steinbecky about working people, because it gives us an excuse to check his votes on behalf of the downtrodden.
Sure enough, when we examine the latest ledgers, we find that our favorite GOPulist has voted against mortgage reform and anti-predatory lending, against FEMA pre-disaster planning, against reining in student credit cards as well as against a credit cardholders’ bill of rights, not to mention voting against prosecuting hate crimes on a local level and against the entire 2010 budget.
Lest you think our hero is all about the nays, we should note that Spencer did vote yes at least once. It was on an amendment to help keep subprime loans accessible to consumers, and although it didn’t pass, at least Spencer was trying to maintain working people’s eligibility to get ripped off by smarmy banking practices. Some Republicans wouldn’t have done that much.
One other political thing caught my eye of late and perhaps yours as well, and that is our state Democrats failing to get things done in Montgomery. At the end of yet another wasteful legislative session with the blind leading the blind, it was poetically appropriate that floodwaters drove the lawmakers to higher ground in the Capitol.
After all, isn’t that the way you flush a mole from your yard?
The old plantation that is the state of Alabama is overrun with legislative moles of both parties, blind to the damage they cause as they tunnel through the aspirations of the citizenry. Thus for you, no campaign finance or ethics reform, no end to the sales tax on food and certainly no constitutional convention referendum.
It’s wishful thinking right now, but it needn’t be next year: let’s go ahead and put Vote Out The Incumbents on our list of things to do. If enough of us follow through, it’s a cinch they’ll never see it coming.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com