Brookshire Grocery Company: A Hometown Legacy

by Robert Marlin

The American astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, and author, Carl Sagan said, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” Today, we are living in the future’s past. What happens today has a direct effect on what will happen tomorrow. What, you may ask, does that have to do with the Brookshire Grocery Company? Not a simple question to answer. Today the company, we’ll call it BGC for simplicity’s sake, is operating almost 200 stores in more than 150 markets in three states (Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas); it employs approximately 16,700 people. It all started ninety-three years ago on September 1, 1928, when Wood T. Brookshire and four employees opened the first store on the east side of the square in Tyler, Texas. To fully appreciate how one family came to a place of prominence in the grocery industry, one must first look into the past. 

For generations, most of the businesses across East Texas were mom and pop operations. From the last quarter of the 19th century and well into the first two decades of the 20th century, commerce was the province of these small enterprises; family-owned and run by family members. In the rural areas, whose primary source of income was through the sale of what was grown and raised on the family farm, the local merchants were viewed by their neighbors as perhaps being a step or two higher on the ladder of success. But in those days, material wealth was not viewed as the measure of success, unlike it is today. In small communities, everyone had a role to play, and the collective output from those various roles is what drove the local economy. Businesses sprang up to fulfill specific needs. It was rare for competition to exist the way it does today. There was one café that sold meals to travelers and residents alike. There was one blacksmith shop where people could have their horses shod or a broken wagon wheel repaired. There was one bank. There was one general store, and that was where everyone in the surrounding area shopped for everything from clothing to fresh produce (directly from the local farms), to medicines at the pharmacy counter. Customers told the shopkeeper what they wanted, and the shopkeeper retrieved the items from the shelf.

Tyler itself began as a small trading center, located at the crossroads for north- and south-bound and east- and west-bound traffic. When the Tyler Tap Railroad Company was charted by a special act of the Twelfth Texas Legislature in December 1871, Tyler’s future as the economic center of East Texas was assured. In October 1877, the railroads only locomotive rolled into Tyler. It was named the Governor Hubbard, in honor of Richard B. Hubbard, who sponsored the bill that ultimately established the railroad. From its originally chartered twenty-one-mile route, the railroad expanded its service northward to serve the towns of Gilmer, Pittsburg, Mount Pleasant, and Clarksville. By 1880, it established a route between the towns of Big Sandy and Texarkana, where it was able to connect with the St. Louis Railway, opening an interstate commerce route for East Texas farm products to reach markets in the East. In 1881, the line completed routes from Tyler to Athens to Corsicana, and by 1882, from Corsicana to Gatesville. In 1886, after nine years of service for the citizens of Tyler and the surrounding area, the railroad was purchased by the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railway Company, known as the Cotton Belt, with service extending from Bird’s Point, Missouri to Gatesville, Texas.

The railroad was a boon to farmers throughout East Texas, who could drive their wagon loads of products to Tyler and sell them to purchasing agents, who in turn shipped the products to buyers across the country. By the beginning of the 20th Century, cotton and peaches were the two largest crops grown in East Texas. When a blight decimated the peach orchards in the early part of the century, growers in the area switched from peaches to rose bushes, which thrived in the area’s sandy loam soil. As rose bushes were shipped across the country, Tyler became known as the Rose Capital of America.

On March 1, 1904, Wood T. Brookshire was born in Angelina County, the fourteenth of sixteen children. When he was seventeen, his older brothers, Tom and Austin, opened the first Brookshire Brother’s Grocery store in Lufkin, Texas, on September 21, 1921. Wood worked in his brothers’ store while he was in high school playing on the Lufkin Panthers football team, which he preferred over picking cotton on his father’s farm. When he graduated from high school, Wood spent a couple of years studying business at Baylor University and soon after joined his brothers in the grocery business full-time. When he was twenty-one, he eloped with the love of his life, Louise.

At the age of twenty-four, Wood and his cousin W.A. Brookshire moved to Tyler, Texas, opening a grocery store on the courthouse square on September 1, 1928. From the beginning, Wood was passionate about giving his customers the best possible service. What he often referred to as his God-given calling, to serve humanity through the grocery business, eventually led to his commitment to volunteerism and philanthropy. He imparted those principles to his employees; and as his company continued to grow, opening more stores, Wood’s philosophy of giving back to the community became an important part of his company’s culture. This was the beginning of what is known today as the Brookshire Grocery Company.

One of the things that made his new store in Tyler stand out was its difference from the old mom and pop stores that allowed customers to buy on credit. Wood’s store was strictly “cash and carry.” His store was also set up for customers to serve themselves. There were wooden baskets available by the entrance that customers could pick up to deposit their items in as they walked through the store. The store itself was narrow, measuring only twenty-five feet wide and one-hundred feet deep. 

A year and one month after opening his first store in Tyler, the stock market crashed. As the nation was plunged into the Great Depression, many in East Texas feared the worst. But providence intervened as oil was discovered in Van, Texas, on October 14th, ten days before the stock market crash. Overnight, Van became an oil boomtown, and people began pouring into Texas. In 1930, Tyler’s population swelled to more than 17,112 people. Business was good in Tyler and got even better on September 3, 1930, when Dad Joiner’s Daisy Bradford #3 oil well came gushing in, washing black gold across the landscape. Tyler benefited from the rush of people coming into East Texas. Because it was located miles away from the areas where drilling took place, and because it was already an established banking center, most of the population growth in Tyler 

was from business professionals and their families. The blue-collared roughnecks migrated to the towns where the drilling took place, and the white-collared investors came to Tyler. Along with the oil boom, the grocery business boomed. During the 1930s, the Brookshire Brothers added thirty-two stores to their chain.

Wood moved his first store two blocks away to 200 South Broadway. It was larger and had its own parking lot, which made shopping easier for customers. When he opened the store, he immediately decided to add meat to the products he could offer patrons. He correctly surmised that customers previously making a trip to the butcher for meat would like the convenience of buying meat at the same place and time as their other groceries. It was another innovation that would mark the difference between Brookshire’s and any competitors. 

By 1938, Wood and W.A. had four stores in Tyler. They made a deal to trade their shares for the Tyler stores and withdrew from the Brookshire Brother’s organization. Within a year, Wood decided he wanted to run three of the Tyler stores alone and traded one store for his shares of the partnership with W.A., taking sole control of the remaining three stores. The three stores were #1 South Broadway Avenue, #2 East Bow Street, and #3 East Erwin Street. Part of Wood’s reasoning for dissolving his partnership with his cousin was his desire for his two sons to one day join him in the business. Shortly after completing the deal, Wood received a call from the Tyler Fire Department informing him that his store on South Broadway had been destroyed by fire. It was a devastating loss, as it was one of the best performing stores. Undeterred, Wood made plans to replace the lost store. The new store was opened later in the year at the corner of South Broadway Avenue and West Front Street. It was the first air-conditioned store in East Texas and was considered the most modern food store in the area when it was completed. These stores, solely owned by Wood Brookshire, became the cornerstone of Brookshire Grocery Company.

By 1940, Tyler’s population grew to 28,279; and by 1950 it was 38,968. The increased population growth meant more grocery shoppers. As the decade of the forties began, BGC had thirty-five employees. Wood was optimistic that the grocery business would continue its growth, and he was determined that BGC would lead the way. The 40s proved to be a period of tremendous innovation in the retail grocery business. And while Wood may not have been personally responsible for developing those innovations, he had no trouble spotting good ideas when he saw them and implementing them into his stores. Such foresight is a major contributing factor for how BGC became so successful. Among the rapidly expanding changes was the introduction of tubular fluorescent lighting, introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1939. Prior to installing the new lighting, BGC stores were illuminated with incandescent bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Suddenly, his stores were bright and cheery due to the new lighting. Wood also introduced shopping carts in his stores. The original idea came from a grocer in Oklahoma who had patented a design of a cart with metal wire baskets and four wheels. By the time Wood bought carts for his store, they had been improved with a design that allowed the carts to “collapse into other carts” for more efficient storage.

Even the process for customers checking out after shopping was improved when the National Cash Register company developed a machine that combined an adding machine function with a secure place to hold money. The new cash registers could tally up the items a customer bought, printing an itemized receipt of the purchase. One of the biggest innovations for the grocery business was the introduction of shopping centers away from the downtown area. It was a concept first seen when the Highland Village Shopping center was opened during the 30s in Dallas. J.A. Bergfeld convinced his family to create a shopping center on his great-grandfather Rudolph’s land located nearly two miles south of downtown Tyler. When completed in 1949, most people considered its location to be “out in the country.” Wood built his ninth store in Bergfeld Center, which is the second shopping center built in the state and is the oldest shopping center in East Texas. Throughout the 40s, Wood continued to open stores, a total of five new stores in Tyler, Longview, Winnsboro, Gladewater, and Kilgore—making BGC a nine-store chain.

Rumblings of a possible war breaking out in Europe was a concern from the mid-thirties. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s immediate entrance into World War II, that concern became a reality. No one was certain exactly how the war would impact the grocery business, but Wood told his employees that the company needed preparations to help their customers during the hard times that were sure to follow. The biggest impact of the war was that many items were suddenly in short supply, or altogether nonexistent. To manage the problem, the government implemented a rationing program. The first item rationed was sugar in the spring of 1942. By November, vouchers were being issued for coffee. Early in 1943, meat, cheese, canned milk, canned fish, and other preprocessed foods were on the ration list. Non-grocery items were also rationed, notably gas, tires, nylons, silk, bicycles, and typewriters. Ultimately, the government began issuing ration books. Americans could only buy items for which they had a ration stamp. Labor also came to be in short supply once the draft program was in full swing. 

The war years proved to be a tough time for the grocery business. Then again, times were tough all over, so BGC employees were encouraged to take extra time with customers when necessary. Ever mindful of providing for his customer’s needs, Wood instructed his store managers to hold certain items back in the storerooms for the customers they knew would need them; customers who may not yet have visited one of their stores, but who would surely be coming in. Years later, when Wood was reflecting on his career in the grocery business and his dedication to putting the customer first and the success he found in the business, he said, “It’s not the one big thing we do for customers, but the thousands of little things.”

The end of the war, and returning soldiers, brought about the single largest increase in the birth rate the nation had ever seen. The “baby boomers” became the most catered to, most sought-after market segment in the history of retailing. At every stage of their lives, satisfying the needs of that generation of children born between 1945 and 1965 became the obsession of marketing executives in every segment of American business. The economic boom from 1950 until the mid-60s was the largest economic growth period our nation had ever experienced. It was a period when BGC continued its steady growth into one of the largest, family-owned businesses in Texas (a case can be made that statement should end with “in the nation”). Coinciding with the national economic growth during the decade following the war, the transition of small grocery stores into supermarkets was complete. Being a part of that transition was a result of Wood Brookshire’s willingness to adopt innovative ideas, coupled with his desire for BGC to be the leader in its field. The whole concept of his stores becoming supermarkets was, in reality, not something intentionally planned. It was the natural evolution brought about by reacting to the changes happening around him; circumstances that were beyond his control, and circumstances for which he had an uncanny ability to recognize the potential they presented. BGC added seven new stores during the 50s and accelerated that pace in the 60s with fifteen.

Wood was extremely pleased that both of his sons went to work for the family business. Bruce began his career as a young boy, plucking chickens in the backroom of one of the Tyler stores and sweeping the floors. In 1951, he was named manager of store #10 in Corsicana. Woody began his career as the clean-up boy and sack boy at a Tyler store. He served as an assistant manager and then manager of store #12 in Marshall in 1956-57. Both of his sons graduated from Tyler High School and attended New Mexico Military Institute. Bruce went to Junior College in Roswell, New Mexico, before attending The University of Texas at Austin. Woody went to Tyler Junior College, The University of Texas at Austin, Trinity University, and Michigan State University. He served in the Korean Conflict as a staff sergeant with the U.S. Air Force.

There were three Brookshires active in the BGC leadership when Bruce and Woody joined the company in the fifties. To keep the names straight, employees began calling them Mr. Wood, Mr. Bruce, and Mr. Woody. 

In a move to economize and take advantage of volume discounts, the company established two warehouses in Tyler during the fifties. The first was for fresh produce, where orders were taken for individual store locations. The produce was stored in the Tyler produce warehouse upon delivery from their suppliers and then trucked individually to each store location. A second, larger warehouse was constructed at the corner of Front and Dean Street in downtown Tyler, adjacent to the railroad track. That was an important aspect of the warehouse as the majority of dry grocery product was being shipped in by rail. Because of the new warehouses, expenses were greatly reduced, and the savings were passed on to the customers, ensuring the company’s advertising message “Better Foods for Less” meant what it said.

When Wood opened that first store on the east side of the square, there were only 200 different products sold in 2,500 square feet of space. By the late 60s, BGC stores averaged 15,000-16,000 square feet of space and stocked more than 7,000+ items. In 1967, work began on building a 175,000 square foot distribution center on thirty-five acres of land on Loop 323 in south Tyler. The new complex included a 26,000 square foot section for the general offices. When it was completed, it took over a month to relocate merchandise from the two existing warehouses into the new location. 

BGC continued to grow throughout the 60s decade. After helming the company for forty-one years, Wood T. Brookshire resigned as president in March 1969, becoming chairman of the board. Bruce was promoted to president of BGC, and Woody was named executive vice president. By the beginning of the 70s decade, BGC was operating thirty-one supermarkets, including eight located in the state of Louisiana. In 1975, under the leadership of brothers, Bruce and Woody, BGC ventured north into Arkansas. By the end of the 70s, the company had almost doubled in size with fifty-nine stores in three states.

Just as Bruce and Woody had started their careers at young ages, from the bottom up, so has the third generation of Brookshires. Bruce’s oldest son, Tim, rode his bike from home to the Bergfeld location at age nine. He started out peeling onions in the produce department. Tim became a store manager at the Green Acres store in 1975 and was promoted to District Grocery Supervisor in 1978. Woody’s oldest son, Brad, began working for the company when he was in the third grade. His first job was bagging ice, for which his dad paid him two cents a bag. As a youth, Brad worked in the warehouse, joining the company full-time in 1977 as a manager trainee. He was named manager of store #42 in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1978 and transferred to the Tyler Distribution Center in 1980 as warehouse manager trainee.

Today, BGC’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer is Brad Brookshire, one of the grandsons of Wood T. Brookshire. “I was exposed to the company from way back and learned so much growing up listening to my dad at the dinner table. I have a tremendous amount of respect for my father and watching him demonstrate the values our company has always stood for. He had a true passion for the company and the grocery business, and to keeping the company going and thriving in the future,” he says. “There’s a lot of responsibility and accountability that comes from having your family’s name on the building and from your parents and grandparents being so personally invested in the business.”

Brad believes that one of the most important things about the company is BGC’s commitment to philanthropy. It applies to every market in which it has stores serving customers. The tradition of the company giving back to the community dates from the beginning. It is a value that the company adheres to, which comes directly from Brad’s grandparents. The list of philanthropic endeavors supported by the company is staggering!

• This past August, the company was recognized with the inaugural Community Impact Award presented by Progressive Grocer, a national magazine of the grocery industry. “We launched the Impact Award Program with a belief that business is a force for good and a desire to showcase the innovative and substantial efforts of companies in the market we serve,” said Mike Troy, Editorial Director, Progressive Grocer. BGC’s accomplishments will be further recognized during an Environment, Social, and Governance Impact Summit and Idea Exchange to be hosted by the magazine in December.

• During the pandemic, BGC committed one million dollars to community food banks and matched an additional $100,000 in customer donations. In addition, BGC established a $1 million endowment to provide perpetual scholarships for high-achieving students in financial need at forty-four colleges and universities, located in thirty communities where they have stores, including Texas College, The University of Texas at Tyler, and Tyler Junior College.

• The company has raised more than $6.5 million over the past thirty-three years through an annual benefit golf tournament sponsored in partnership with BGC’s supplier community. Its FRESH 15 run in Tyler raised $150,000 in 2021 for local charities in Tyler. Its last Heroes Run benefiting first responders and military heroes in Shreveport/Bossier City raised $80,000. Both of these races have raised more than $1.2 million in the past seven years.

• BGC employee-partners log more than 20,000 hours of community service annually, representing the company as volunteers in numerous civic, school, and charitable activities, including toy drives, The Salvation Army Angel Tree, the United Way Day of Caring, food banks and many other organizations in every market where their stores are located.

During the historic and devastating winter storm earlier this year, the BGC team pulled together and stepped up to do whatever it took to keep their stores open for customers. When much of Texas was shut down without electricity or water for days on end, forty BGC leaders and their family members showed up at the warehouses and delivered truckloads of products in 4×4 vehicles to within fifty miles of Tyler. This allowed stores throughout East Texas to stay open and take care of the essential food needs of customers who were depending on them. Many employees volunteered to help hand out water in drive-through distribution sites at BGC stores for residents who had been without water for days. The company’s Community Kitchen was out cooking meals for first responders and hospital workers in appreciation and support for all they do to  take care of people in the community. Those are actions that reflect the culture created by Wood Brookshire nearly a century ago.

Innovation is of crucial importance, and BGC is constantly evolving to meet consumer needs and expectations. An example is how the COVID-19 pandemic fueled growth in e-Commerce. With the pandemic, online shopping was the solution for many consumers. Online ordering and curbside pickup quadrupled in the early stage of the pandemic. Another innovation that has helped consumers is the expansion of self-checkout lanes for those who prefer this service. The company’s 120 in-store pharmacy locations have been aided by BGC’s prescription-central fill center in Smith County, which frees up pharmacy personnel to dedicate more time to taking care of patients they serve in the stores. 

One of Brad’s grandfather’s strong beliefs was in rewarding employee-partners by allowing them to earn a share of the profits. It was something he started during the 1930s. Wood considered his profit-sharing concept to be one of the wisest moves he ever made during his career. It is a policy that remains to this day.

“We are so incredibly grateful for everything our partners do to serve our customers and communities. Investing in our people is the best thing we can do as a company,” says Brad. In part, as a way to thank existing employees and to differentiate itself in a challenging labor market, BGC recently raised wages for nearly 13,500 of its approximately 16,700 employees. The wage increase is an investment of more than $33 million. This is the largest investment in wage increases in BGC’s history and is a result of everything employee-partners have accomplished in the last eighteen months. 

Prior to this investment in partner wages, the company had given its employee-partners more than $30 million since March 2020, when the pandemic hit, through a comprehensive gift and incentive package that includes bonus checks; $50, $100, and $200 gift cards, extra employee discounts, retail incentives, on-site meals, a compensation plan for those directly affected by COVID-19, waived MDLIVE® copays, and the previously temporary wage increases for those in retail and logistics, which are now permanent.

“The Brookshire family is committed to the long-term sustainability and growth of our family business. I am very optimistic for our future because of the third and fourth generations of the family members active on our board of directors and in company leadership,” Brad explains. Examples of current expansion plans include something that started in 2016, when BGC purchased twenty-five former Walmart Express stores that had been closed earlier that year. The company converted and reopened the stores, launching its new Spring Market banner. The name pays tribute to BGC’s hometown and its first store on Spring Avenue in downtown Tyler. This new brand is intended for smaller markets. A new FRESH by Brookshire’s store is under construction, with plans to open in early 2022 in Fate, Texas. A groundbreaking ceremony was held this summer at the site of a new Super 1 Foods store, which will be the company’s first location in Jacksonville, Texas. The company is committed to long-term, sustainable growth and to keeping existing stores fresh and relevant through regular remodeling and improvements. BGC continually looks for opportunities to invest in new, as well as current, market areas as a part of its journey forward. One such opportunity was in 2019, when Pizza Hut’s first grocery store kiosks were introduced in Tyler and continue to operate at the Brookshire’s at  2734 E. Fifth Street and the Super 1 Foods store at 3828 Troup Highway.

Growth is very much a part of the future for Brookshire Grocery Company. It was in the past, it is today. Brad believes the most important contribution Brookshire Grocery Company has made is being a company that cares, has a passion for service, treats everyone with respect, follows its founding core values, and gives back generously in the communities that support its stores. The company is commited to being a safe, reliable food source that customers can depend on in any circumstance. An example of the company’s concern for customers and employees is the extraordinary extra lengths instituted to keep everyone safe during the pandemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic, employees have continued to wear masks. When customers walk in the front door, masks are available to them. The floors were marked with decals to assist customers in following social distancing guidelines. During the pandemic, more than sixty safety protocols were implemented, in addition to the company’s already stringent practices regarding employee and customer health and safety. BGC pharamicies have provided more than 160,000 COVID-19 vaccinations.

“I hope people will regard Brookshire Grocery Company for who we truly are and the values we stand for and practice as a company. I hope they will see my grandfather’s impeccable principles reflected in how we do business now and always,” says Brad. “I’m excited about where we’ve been, but I’m more excited about where we’re going. We are on the right path and are creating the bright future my grandfather envisioned for us. I believe that our core values will continue to inspire and guide us as we take Brookshire Grocery Company to the next level for our customers, partners, and communities.”