The Heights

Family-owned groceries are hallmark of The Heights

Update: On October 16, Montesi's announced via Facebook that they will close their doors after 33 years. No specific closure date has been set. Store manager Tricia Montesi Veglio wrote, "We tried to survive and stick around but us being an independent trying to compete wasn’t working. We will miss every single one of our customers. Thank you for all the support over the years." 

In 1960, the Stepherson brothers opened a grocery store at 3942 Macon Road and placed inside the building a time capsule to be opened in the year 2000.

“The capsule, an old cash register, was put in the wall beside the door on March 15, 1960,” wrote Toni Lepeska in a Commercial Appeal article marking the capsule’s opening. Inside were old copies of the Memphis Press-Scimitar and letters and photos that shoppers left for their children to see years later.

It was a snapshot of Summer Avenue and the surrounding Heights neighborhood from a time when home grownJack Stepherson and his brothers founded the first Stepherson's grocery in 1950. Now the family owns the Superlo Foods brand. (Special Collections Department, University of Memphis Libraries), independent grocery stores dominated the Memphis landscape.

The Heights became part of Memphis in the 1920s. It was founded as a rural community and grew into a bustling center after World War II.

Two grocery stores, Montesi’s Supermarket on Summer Avenue and Stepherson’s Food Store on Macon Road, both have strong ties to Memphis and have stayed open and rooted to the community through many changes.

The neighborhood may look different from the post-War era when independent grocery stores were popular, but both Montesi’s and Stepherson’s provide a familiar element to the Heights.

Related: “Asylums, trolleys & forgotten soldiers: Five facts about The Heights you didn't know

Montesi’s Grocery, at 3362 Summer, bears a name that has long been associated with grocers in Memphis. It began when Fred Montesi, who was born in Senigallia, Italy, came to Memphis in the 1920s.

He established Montesi’s supermarkets at locations throughout the city, including two locations at 3362 and 4568 Summer Avenue. In 1955, the Montesi’s stores were sold to National Tea Co. of Chicago, a Midwestern grocery store company that rechristened the stores as National Supermarkets. A 1955 Commercial Appeal article documenting the deal estimated it was worth $2,000,000.

There was another independent grocery chain that is part of The Heights' story but is now just a memory. When Hugh H. Hogue returned from World War II and the Pacific Theater, he and his business partner, John R. Knott, opened the first Hogue & Knott grocery store. They then bought one of the old Montesi stores at Chelsea and Hollywood and opened additional Hogue & Knott locations.

The Montesi family opened the first store in the 1920s. The current location at 3362 Summer Avenue launched in the 1980s. (Tamara Williamson)

The two men had been protegees of Fred Montesi and purchased their first store in The Heights in 1958 at Summer and Waring Road, where Kroger is now located. A Memphis Press-Scimitar article from that year announced, “Two Memphians who grew up in the grocery business will open one of the city’s largest grocery stores at Summer and Waring Road.”

The article went on to note how all Hogue & Knott stores were “self-service,” meaning a shopper could purchase meat already wrapped in packages and pull their own items from shelves. This was a revolution in grocery shopping that also began here in Memphis with the first Piggly Wiggly store in 1916. In 1965, the pair purchased the property at 3362 Summer Avenue from National Tea Company and set up shop in the original Montesi's location.

Fred Montesi rejoined the grocery store game in 1960 when he opened a Montesi Supermarket at 1620 Madison Avenue, now Cash Saver, and then 5014 Poplar Avenue, now Whole Foods. The stores closed in 1983.

Hogue & Knott went out of business in 1985, and Fred Montesi’s grandson, Robert Montesi, purchased the property at 3362 Summer Avenue to take his shot at the family business. The store went back to the Montesi's moniker and has remained a fixture on Summer for 33 years. It’s now managed by Tricia Montesi, Robert’s daughter.

Two miles away from Montesi’s sits Stepherson’s, another venerable grocery store. While the current location at 3942 Macon Road opened in 1960, the original location launched in 1950 a block west. Sheryl Burks is a longtime and frequent customer of Stepherson's.

"I live around here, and I come almost every day,” she said. “It's a really nice store and the people who work here are great."

A portrait of founder Fred Montesi hangs in the last store to bare his name. (Tamara Williamson)

The store was founded by the Stepherson brothers — Jack, Kenneth, and Wesley. In 1944, Jack Stepherson wrote his brothers, who were serving in the military overseas, and asked them to send money home so he could open a grocery store in Memphis. Kenneth and Wesley sent all they had.

“There were more independent groceries at the time,” said Randy Stepherson, current owner of Stepherson’s and son of Kenneth. “Most were owner-operated, and the owner greeted customers every day.”

The Stepherson family also owns SuperLo stores, with the first SuperLo store opening on Spottswood in 1993. Randy worked at Stepherson’s as a kid then briefly at a CPA firm but returned to the store in 1976 to run the meat market. He’s not the only one with serious longevity with the company. Jeanna Brinn is the office manager and has worked at Stepherson’s for 23 years.

“... Tommy Rogers has never worked anywhere else in his life,” said Stepherson of the store manager who was on a well-earned vacation.

Brinn said that when she started working in The Heights, the neighborhood was comprised of many older white residents, who have since passed away or moved. Now the neighborhood around the store has a sizable Latino presence.

Brinn said the locally-owned grocery as remained a popular staple and weekends can get quite busy.

“But weekdays are too. People come in before work, at lunchtime, after school, and after work,” she said. 

The store gets a lot of business from nearby Treadwell Middle School and Kingsbury High School and now has a healthy mixture of Caucasian, African-American, and Latino clientele. Stepherson’s staff makes strides to communicate with their Latino customers in Spanish and to stock products that are used by those in the surrounding community.

“We have changed the store’s products to accommodate the patrons,” said Stepherson.

The store’s meat department receives rave reviews from customers, and its produce is delivered daily from different local farmers. The store has a Western Union and bill paying services that are utilized by many of the customers. Stepherson’s also makes an effort to hire folks from the neighborhood. 

“You’re part of a family when you work here,” Brinn said.
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Read more articles by Tamara Williamson.

Tamara is a native Memphian and has a B.A. and M.A. from UT Knoxville. She has previously written guest posts for I Love Memphis blog.