By James Johnson
Tommy Kinlaw knows the value of a steady job.
For 54 years, Tommy has worked. Day in and day out, he has slaved away, first as a grocery store bag boy, then behind the counter, then as a meat manager and finally, in 1971, as owner and chief butcher of his own store, Kinlaw’s Supermarket. Even today, when Tommy admits he is supposed to have been retired four years prior, he chooses to come in and work, because a steady job, Tommy said, is not just an opportunity to make money, it’s an opportunity to make a difference.
Kinlaw’s Supermarket, located at 1802 Sapona Road, has a staff of roughly 50 people, who work every day but Sunday, from 8:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., to provide the community around them with hard to find grocery items, affordable prices and 30,000 pounds a day of what Tommy says is the freshest meat available outside of a barn.
Many of of his employees were hired because there was no where else they could go. While Tommy has been working in the meat industry for more than 50 years, he has been a Christian even longer and according to him, that means using whatever means he has available to him, to help others. As a business owner, that deals directly with the public, Tommy is aware that staffing his business with felons and those struggling with health or financial problems, is a risk, but as a Christian, he feels it is also a duty.
“I have taught Sunday-school for 47 years. It is a type of ministry that everybody who is a Christian should be involved in,” Tommy said. “If you are one of His disciples, you do what you do, but you also try to do what He would do. I have a lot of people around me who have backgrounds they aren’t proud of and who couldn’t work anywhere else. But we have to help people and give them a chance. Everyone deserves a chance. Everyone.”
Gregory Travis Jr. is one of the more recent recipients of that aforementioned second chance. He is well aware of how rare opportunities like these are.
“I’ve been given my new start and I am not taking that for granted,” Travis Jr. said during a lunch break.
Hailing from New Jersey, Travis Jr. ran into legal trouble, thanks to involvement in drugs, and a failure to pay child support. Four years ago, he arrived in Fayetteville penniless, homeless and fresh off of a jail sentence. Travis Jr. still had a family to support, only now he had a felony hanging over his head, which would only make finding legitimate employment that much harder.
In 2010, the Center for Economic and Policy Research conducted a study that found that only 40 percent of employers said that they would consider hiring an applicant with a felony on their record, which may explain why, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 30 percent of adult offenders released from state prisons are re-arrested within the first six months of their release, and 67 percent return to prison within three years following their release. Travis Jr., is now on year four.
“While I have been here, I have paid off my child support, been going to church ever since and just got my driver’s license,” Travis Jr. said. “Here I have more than a job, I have a lot of friends who support me. Mr. Kinlaw goes way beyond his reach to ensure that all of his employees are comfortable. This is my home away from home.” Travis Jr. has no plans of leaving Kinlaw’s employment. Like many employees, Travis Jr. says he is a “lifer.”
“This is my career path,” Travis Jr. said. “I would rather see my kids graduate. They don’t have to work like daddy is working … My kids play football, my kids go to the movies. I want them to see the world and not have to go through what I went through.”
Tommy’s trust in the decency of strangers hasn’t seemed to have any negative impact on his bottom line. Since taking over the grocery store in 1974, he has seen the business steadily grow to the point in which he says people will travel from other states to purchase his meats. He has entrusted management of the business to his son, Travis Kinlaw and even opened the “Welcome Grill,” a large cafeteria-style restaurant and catering business, located just behind Kinlaw’s Supermarket store, which is run by his oldest son, Tom Kinlaw III.
Tommy said the grill regularly caters to anywhere between 700 and 1,000 customers a day during the breakfast and lunch hours. It is open from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.
“The customers keep coming back because of the way we treat people,” said Travis, who began working for his father’s business when he was just 16. “You got to have the product and you have to treat people the way you want to be treated. That is the way. I always say before I talk to someone, ‘Would I want someone talking to my mom this way?’ ‘Would I want someone talking to my child this way?’ Just treat people right and give them fair prices.”
For regular customer Precious Everett, that method has worked.
“I drive out of my way to get here once a month,” said Everett. “The meat bundle is what keeps me coming back. You get a lot for what you pay for and you can’t find anything fresher.”
While the small family-run supermarket may not have the resources of a big box store, Tommy said the low prices they are able to get have everything to do with having built relationships with distributors. Like his son, Tommy believes that much of his business’ success can be credited to the relationships they’ve built.
“We don’t do it for money. That is one thing. If you go into business with one goal and that is to make money then you won’t ever feel complete,” Tommy said. “You won’t feel as if you accomplished what you sought to do. It’s about the people.”