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Lanier's IGA: Small town store with a big time impact

For over half a century Lanier's IGA has provided support, encouragement and opportunity to the Portal community one bag of groceries at a time
Lanier's IGA in Portal, GA Credit: Lanier Family

For as far back as most north Bulloch county residents can remember, there has been a grocery store in Portal, Georgia. There may be some folks still living who remember Sparks Grocery, and more may recall shopping at Mr. Hoyt Daughtry’s IGA. Since 1979, however, citizens of Portal and beyond have been getting their groceries at Lanier’s IGA, a family-owned and operated business in the heart of Portal.

Mr. Larry Lanier will tell you, though, it’s more than simply a place to buy food. It may be a small business in a small town, but it has had a big impact in this Bulloch county community.

Larry Lanier
Mr. Larry cutting his great-grandson's hair for the youngster's first haircut.

Portal native Larry Lanier hasn’t always been in the grocery business. In fact, some of Portal’s oldest residents may have gotten their hair cut by Mr. Larry, who at one time owned and operated Lanier’s Barber Shop with his father, Mr. Durward Lanier. Larry, now 78, says barbering was “a production game,” making money only when there was a customer in one of the five chairs in their shop.

“I cut 62 heads of hair in a day,” he recalls. “That was tough on a man’s body.”

Getting into the grocery business

In 1973, Mr. Arthur Sparks approached Larry and offered to sell his grocery business to him, but at the time Lanier wasn’t in a position to make the purchase and continued to cut hair and tend a modest-sized farm for the next six years.

In 1979, Hoyt Daughtry, who did buy the store in ’73, offered to sell the IGA franchise to the Laniers, and this time Larry agreed. Lanier’s oldest son, Brian, was already working for Daughtry, and when the business changed hands, he kept right on working! At the time, though, Mr. Larry was the only Lanier who thought buying and operating a grocery store was a good idea. His wife Mrs. Jewel did not share his vision for their future, having some choice words to say to the contrary.

Jewel Lanier
Mrs. Jewel Lanier

Mr. Lanier laughingly recalls, “She told me I was out of my ever-lovin’ mind. Then she didn’t speak to me for two weeks!” Mrs. Jewel may have been upset with Mr. Larry, but that didn’t stop her from helping to make their new business endeavor a success by working at the store several days each week until her death in 2019, stocking shelves and making sure customers felt welcome and appreciated.

Larry says his father had the same feelings but went in with him anyway, and together they opened Lanier’s IGA in the original Sparks Grocery building next to the post office.

As it turns out, Larry wasn’t as “out of his mind” as his wife thought. With dedication, many long days, and lots of hard work, Larry and his father made a success of Lanier’s IGA, turning a good profit in those first years, fostering enough growth that they needed to look for a new home for the business.

In 1988, Lanier’s moved to its current location at 308 North Grady Street, and for the past 44 years and four generations, the Lanier family has been providing Portal residents with quality food and friendly service.

The changing face of grocery shopping

If you’ve ever been in Lanier’s IGA, you may have noticed the floor plan isn’t one huge room as more modern grocery stores are. In fact, at one time it was three separate businesses, with Mr. Hubert Edenfield’s old grocery store sandwiched between a 5 and Dime store and a closed hardware store.

Older residents may remember the 5 and 10 cent store, with its Coca-Cola bottle mural on the side, discovered again when students from Portal High School began cleaning the wall to paint the current mural. Mr. Larry certainly remembered Edenfield’s grocery store, having worked there as a bagger when he was a teenager! Mr. Larry realized that to see the business growth he wanted, he would need to see some building growth, and to that end he purchased all three shops, remodeled the floor plan, and moved Lanier’s IGA Food Liner to its current location.

The old 5 & 10 Cent Store mural

This growth was necessary, as the face of grocery shopping was changing. There was a time when most rural folks bought only what they couldn’t grow at home, which meant meats and vegetables weren’t hot-selling items.

“We didn’t sell a lot of chicken back then,” Mr. Larry recalls, “not when most folks had them running around in their yards.”

Certain dry goods, on the other hand, they made sure to keep well stocked. One of Mr. Larry’s sons and part owner Joey Lanier remembers when it was a necessity to stock 25 pound sacks of flour in order to keep the family cooks happy and supplied with all they needed to cook good country meals.

Now, he says, “You can barely find sacks of flour that big. Our most popular size is a two-pound bag now. Not too many people need that much flour nowadays.” Mr. Larry chimed in, saying, “Nope. There aren’t too many biscuits getting made from scratch at home anymore.”

Lanier's IGA Mural
Lanier's IGA Food Liner mural depicting Portal's agricultural heritage

The decrease in demand for large sacks of flour was inversely related to the need to expand the store’s frozen foods section, which further necessitated expansion, leading Mr. Larry and his sons to build onto their store in 2003, expanding their produce department to accommodate their customers’ changing needs.

Some things change; Others remain the same

Larry Lanier is proud of the fact that his family’s business has grown every year, even through some of what Mr. Larry calls “mighty lean times.” Folks had to eat, though, and Lanier’s IGA made sure to have what people in his community needed. And while change is a natural product of growth, some things at Lanier’s IGA have stayed the same, which is a good thing. You won’t find any pre-packaged chicken at Lanier’s. No, sir. Every pack of chicken is freshly wrapped and put in their meat counters.

Lanier’s IGA is approved to carry and proudly stocks only Certified Angus Beef©, “which a bit more expensive than Prime, Choice, or Select,” Brian and Joey say, “but it’s well worth it. That beef cuts like butter!”

Certified Angus Beef at Lanier's

Lanier’s also still bags its own ice, which isn’t something one sees every day, yet it’s just one example of how things operate in a small town and how the Lanier family believes things ought to be, at least in their store.

Plenty of stories to tell

Being in business for so long, there’s no doubt that Mr. Larry, Brian, and Joey have their share of grocery stories to tell, most of which involve some of the many young Portal residents who’ve worked for the Laniers over the years. One such story revolves around a young man named Allen but who Mr. Durward called “Punk Rock.” Punk Rock worked for Mr. Lanier cutting his grass each week, and he made such an impression as a hard-working young man that Mr. Durward told Larry, “When he’s old enough, you need to hire him,” which is exactly what Larry did.

Just listening to Mr. Larry talk about Allen now, one can tell he is proud of the young man. “Punk Rock lives in Bainbridge now, he made something of himself. When he comes back here to see his family, he always stops by the store to see me,” Mr. Larry says, “and still thanks me for giving him a job and teaching him how to work.”

What better return on an investment as an employer than knowing you helped shape a young employee into a hardworking, productive adult member of society.

Mr. Larry, Brian, and Joey all remember another young man who “cut his working teeth” at Lanier’s IGA. The youngster, who lived down the street with his grandmother, sister, and cousin, would come to the store every single day – rain or shine – to buy his grandma a newspaper, and just about every day when he was there, he’d ask Mr. Larry for a job.

“One day when you’re old enough,” Mr. Larry recalls telling the young man, “I’m gonna hire you, son,” and that’s exactly what he did, although Brian and Joey didn’t think he would work out. Brian admits, “I learned a lesson through that boy, not to judge someone by where they came from. He was one of the hardest workers we had, always pushing himself and the other baggers to do better. He’d challenge the other boys to beat his time bagging ice. Nobody could do it.”

Lanier's is hometown proud

One more young man who made a good, lasting impression on the Laniers is Stacy Underwood, better known around Bulloch county as Uncle Shug.

“He was one of the first boys to work for me,” recalls Mr. Larry, “and he did a fine job. And he went and made something of himself, too.”

Listening to the Lanier men talk about former employees, it’s not hard to tell that they are proud.

“Some of the young folks who worked here didn’t do so well in life. A couple went to jail, some died, and some just didn’t make much, but most of them did. Most of the young’uns to come through this store became something.”

It makes Mr. Larry, Brian, and Joey smile to say that, as it should.

So much more than just a store

Lanier’s IGA has been more to the Portal community than simply a place for its kids to cut their teeth in the work world. The Laniers have happily sponsored Bulloch county 4-H livestock shows and have been staunch supporters of Portal Middle/High School’s Ag program.

For years as head of Portal’s FFA program, Dr. Tom Marshall used IGA’s meat department to help train his students for meat judging competitions. His ties to the Lanier family go deeper than meat judging, however. Joey Lanier and his wife were both Dr. Marshall’s students in the early ‘90s, as was their niece a few years ago. The Lanier family thinks very highly of Dr. Marshall and his influence on students in his Ag classes through the years, and it’s likely safe to say that Dr. Marshall thinks just as highly of the Laniers and the support they’ve given those same students.

Lanier Men
The men of Lanier's IGA - Brian, Mr. Larry, and Joey

Since 1979, four generations of the Lanier family have served the Portal and Bulloch county area by providing excellent customer service, community service, and quality food products.

“As of December 14, 2022, I had been working 60 years,” says Mr. Larry. “I thought it was about time I retired, but I still come here almost every day.”

Joey’s oldest son, who is 15, just started working at the store as a bagger, and Brian’s three girls all worked at Lanier’s as cashiers.

“We don’t know if a Lanier will always run this IGA. Only time will tell,” says Joey.

Only the future knows whether or not Lanier’s IGA will remain a fixture in Portal into the next generation, but everyone in the community knows that, from Mr. Durward Lanier and his son Larry and daughter-in-law Jewel; to their children Brian, Joey, and Pam; and their children, this family has made a positive, lasting impact in a big way and that, like the foods they sell and the service they provide, is a cut above the rest.