Meet The Real Harris Teeter
Turns out, there were two.
Harris Teeter is not a real person—it's two of them. The store that Southerners know and love got its start back in 1939, when brothers Willis (W.L.) and Paul Teeter borrowed $1,700 to open a grocery store in Mooresville, North Carolina, according to the Harris Teeter website. They named their shop Teeters Food Mart and it was a real family operation, with W.L. working as manager, Paul as produce manager, and W.L.'s wife working in the shop. They had a dirt basement floor and sold live chickens from a cage on the back porch. They sold groceries of all types to their community for over 20 years, expanding their business, bringing in more family members to help. The Teeters were innovators, too, installing the first automatic doors and check-outs in North Carolina.
W.T. Harris was born on a cotton farm in Georgia in 1909. He never graduated from high school, but eventually moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, landing a job at the local A&P grocery store. He worked hard, becoming manager, and devising all sorts of ideas for how to improve the store and increase profits. He eventually decided to open his own store, securing a $500 loan from the bank, even though it was the heart of the Great Depression. He had a few modern ideas about how a grocery store should operate, focusing on high-quality products, clean stores, and superior customer service.
According to his granddaughter, Harris would inspect all of the fruit and produce purchased for his stores, too, and used the knowledge he learned on his family farm to buy the finest fruits, vegetables, and pecans, driving into South Carolina to bring back bushels of peaches for the stores. He even sold fresh flowers from his mother-in-law's garden, giving her the profits from the flowers. When he outgrew his grocery store in 1949, he got a bigger space and continued to innovate. The new store was North Carolina's first full-service grocery store, where customers could pull the items they wanted from the shelves without waiting for a clerk. He also extended his hours, staying open until 9 p.m. on Friday nights so working men and women could buy groceries on payday. He also put in a real luxury—air conditioning, a first for the grocery industry, according to the Harris Teeter website. Later, he added a full-service drugstore called Harris Drugs.
By 1958, Harris and Teeters had started talking about combining their buying and warehousing. Eventually the two store owners realized that their interests would be better served by merging. Come February 1, 1960, the stores had consolidated the nine Harris Super Markets and six Teeter stores to form Harris Teeter Super Markets into Harris Teeter Supermarkets, Inc. changing the signs on the stores they owned around North Carolina. The first store they opened under the "Harris Teeter" name was in Kannapolis, NC., according to Groceteria, a grocery store history website. Together, Misters Harris and Teeter were able to expand rapidly, opening 25 grocery stores in just three years, and buying the five-store supermarket chain Tilman's Grocery of Shelby, NC, as well as two independent grocery stores in Charlotte and Gastonia.
The new grocery chain was so successful that soon a bigger company stepped forward wanting to buy them out. In 1969, the Ruddick holding company bought Harris Teeter. When they later purchased the Food World chain, Harris Teeter was able to grow even larger. They added new Harris Teeter stores in North Carolina and parts of Virginia. While the Harris and Teeter families sold the company they started, Harris remained active in the business, working as Chairman of the Board of Directors for Harris Teeter until 1972 and remained on Ruddick's board until 1981, according to the Harris Teeter website.
That wasn't the only way that Harris kept busy. He also ran a dairy farm, created a co-op for the dairy farmers, was president of the Greater Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, sat on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, and came up with the idea of developing University Research Park. To thank him for his contributions to the city, Charlotte eventually named a street for him—W.T. Harris Boulevard.
Teeter was also actively involved in his community, a deacon at Prospect Presbyterian Church, an active member in the Mooresville Kiwanis Club. Teeter passed away on June 30, 1980, following a lengthy illness. After his death, his wife Sylvia said, "From the first, he maintained that the customer was the most important person. He was out to please whomever set foot in the store."
Harris did his best to keep Teeter's legacy alive. In 1980, Harris Teeter bought their first dairy to start producing their own milk, ice cream, and other dairy products, which they still do today. In 1988, Harris Teeter acquired even more stores, adding 52 stores to the Harris Teeter brand. Even after he retired, he would stop by Harris Teeter stores in Charlotte to bag groceries and chat with associates and customers alike. Harris passed away on November 14, 1989, at the age of 80.
While Kroger purchased Harris Teeter in 2013, Harris and Teeter would undoubtedly be proud of their store's legacy