After nearly nine months of repairs due to severe flooding, Isom IGA grocery store in Isom, Kentucky has reopened its doors to serve as a vital community food source in Letcher County.
A 12-hour deluge beginning July 27, 2022 in eastern Kentucky brought 7-10 inches of rain overnight and raised the North Fork Kentucky River about 11 feet above flood stage — an occurrence the National Weather Service deemed a one in 1,000 chance of happening in the area.
Following the Kentucky floods, Isom IGA was deemed a total loss by the insurance company. Products were knocked off shelves after more than six feet of water had crested and retreated inside the store. The health department had condemned the store, which meant it needed to be completely emptied and sanitized before any rebuilding efforts began.
"The store is my home away from home, and the employees and community are an extension of my family," Isom IGA Owner Gwen Christon said following the flood. "You think of it as a store but it's actually a gathering place for everyone. This is where friends meet friends. They come here not only to buy groceries but to socialize and spend time together."
In addition to a community gathering place, Isom IGA was the only full-service grocery store in 10+ miles. With the store closed after the flood, the community lost their primary food source, which was all the more reason to reopen quickly.
Fast forward to April 5, 2023, a ribbon cutting ceremony officially welcomed shoppers back to the beloved hometown grocer.
August 2022: Isom IGA Employee Dale Blair pushes a cart of products to be disposed. Credit: Ryan C. Hermens, Herald-Leader.
A Dedication to Rebuild
The Alex Lee, Inc. team, which includes Isom IGA’s distributor MDI, helped coordinate restoration, store decor and signage, and funding efforts for the local grocer.
Alan Atwood, retailer counselor with MDI, still remembers getting the phone call from Gwen the Friday morning after the floods when she asked him to cancel her deliveries. He rushed over there that same day to asses the damage.
Although insurance helped cover a quarter of the cost (at least $2 million) to reopen, as soon as disaster struck, the MDI and Alex Lee, Inc. team leapt into action, researching available funding avenues, including FEMA relief, grants, and small business loans.
“MDI is a company that supports the American dream and this store's recovery is an inspiration for many. We thank Gwen, Arthur, and Simon for their willingness to stick through this and bring this beautiful store back to Isom, Kentucky,” MDI Executive Vice President of Sales & Retail Nick Carlino said.
Gwen Christon speaks at the Isom IGA ribbon cutting ceremony on April 5.
Christon publicly vowed to rebuild and reopen soon after the disaster, and Isom IGA quickly received generous donations towards rebuilding efforts.
“This store was a risk for the family as it has taken time and money and the belief that it would be supported. And seeing it now and seeing the support of this community – I believe it was the right risk," Carlino said during the ribbon cutting ceremony on April 5. "Gwen, MDI has been and will continue to be right behind you in the journey and we are your biggest fans."
Many IGA retailers, as well as grocers and wholesalers across the country, donated to the GoFundMe campaign or IGA Hometown Proud Foundation to help Christon rebuild and support the communities affected by the flooding.
Good Morning America’s sponsor Netspend donated $10,000 towards Isom IGA’s rebuilding efforts. Father Jim Sichko, a preacher based in the Diocese of Lexington, collected donations from companies like Delta Airlines and University of Kentucky President Eli Capitulo to provide a $75,000 donation to help Christon reopen.
“When something goes wrong, when there’s a hurricane, when there’s a fire on the west coast or there’s a flood like what happened here, the first place people turn is to their local grocery store,” said IGA CEO John Ross. “When that store’s in trouble, the community comes out as you did. And not just the local community, but the whole community and that’s why IGA is so special. Because today, although we’re celebrating this here in this beautiful place, this amazing place here in the state, retailers all over the world followed your story and they paid attention to what you guys are doing and they’ve been rooting for you the whole time.”
IGA CEO John Ross speaks at the Isom IGA ribbon cutting ceremony.
Isom IGA's New Look
The reopening process was a team effort that included MDI, IGA, the National Grocers Association (NGA), and the Christon family. Sichko's donations, combined with $55,000 from IGA's Go Fund Me campaign and Hometown Proud Foundation, allowed the teams to create the ideal store for the community's unique needs.
That included a new IGA décor package that MDI and Christon customized to honor the Isom community. Throughout the store signage, shoppers now see professional photography of former or current shoppers inside the store, taken by local photographer Malcom J. Wilson, who runs Humans of Central Appalachia.
The people photographed all have ties to the Isom community. They either lived in or around Isom and most importantly, shopped at Isom IGA. Wilson noted several of them have passed away and can be considered "icons" in the community – this includes a local honey vendor, poet, radio personality, and even banjo player Lee Sexton.
Wilson and MDI also provided local food photography for the signage. Atwood credited MDI Senior Manager of Advertising and Print Tammy Wilcox for working closely with Gwen, Simon (Gwen's son), and Wilson to pull everything together to create this custom-made decor kit.
Wilson lives in Blackey, Kentucky and has shopped at Isom IGA for years, so to be a part of this project was special to him. He noted that not many photographers can say they have a gallery at their local grocery store.
"I was in the grocery store right after it flooded to document all the damage for the family. And just see from there to now – being a part of the new store. It's very emotional for me," Wilson said. "The Christon family does so much for this community, so much that people don't even know about because they don't want any accolades. They just do a lot of things for a lot of people."
Another customization? Prepared foods. With few options for dining out in the Isom community, Christon and MDI prioritized more prepared food options when remodeling the store. The extensive deli department features a Deli To Go section where customers can find hot foods, rotisserie chickens, and a soon-to-be-operating smoker for all kinds of meats.
Hunt Brothers Pizza is now connected to the deli as well, so customers can pick up ready-made hot pizzas and wings or place custom orders online to pick up.
"It's a state-of-the-art facility," Atwood said. "It's the latest and greatest. I've been in stores that have deli/bakeries 10 times this size. But they don't have any more offering than what she has."
State-of-the-art indeed, as the store is also focused on being as energy efficient as possible. Before the flood, they had installed solar panels, and during the remodel, MDI found energy-efficient refrigerated cases to further aid in minimizing energy costs.
"We are extremely happy to be back to work. Our community is very happy and just ecstatic to be able to shop a little bit closer to home without driving 15 miles to get a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk,” Christon said. “Actually, the store is better than what it was before. That's hard to say. But it really is."
The staff is back at Isom IGA as well and they have even added more team members totaling 32 strong. Christon said employees utilized the IGA Retail Learning Institute to refresh their knowledge on customer service and managing produce, meat, and deli departments.
Atwood was elated to see where the store is today compared to when he first saw the flood damage.
"At the end of the day we're just really happy that we can help the Christon family get back their store and operate," Atwood said. "I just I don't know how to describe it. It was just kind of a roller coaster of emotions leading up to that day and then the day we we did the ribbon cutting and everybody was there – I'm tickled to death for the family."
The Future of Isom IGA
The Christon family has run Isom IGA for over 25 years and plans to do so for the next generation. Gwen will pass the store ownership to her son, Simon, once she’s ready to retire. He has been working at the store since 2020.
“I'm going to stay with him as long as I can. I’m going to be on full time for the next couple of years, but after that, I probably will back off a little bit and try to take a little time to rest up,” Christon said.
She will leave big shoes to fill, having just received the Spirit of IGA Award at this year's IGA Awards of Excellence Ceremony and WGA's Woman of the Year Award.
"Google Gwen Christon and you will be spoiled by choices of all the news and media outlet stories that you can find about her and her contributions to her community, whether providing meals to school children during the pandemic, or to those made homeless during the flash floods last July, or single-handedly preventing a food desert in her community," The Shelby Report President and Publisher Stephanie Reid said. "Gwen Christon is the heartbeat of Isom, Kentucky."
Gwen Christon receives WGA's 2023 Woman of the Year Award at The NGA Show in February.
Christon is hopeful for her community's recovery and grateful to the supporters who made the store reopening possible, like Atwood and the MDI team, who she says, "went right into the mud right along with me" to clean up the store after the floods.
Atwood noted it was a team effort from all parties involved. "It was the MDI team, the IGA team, the Isom team, and the Isom community. I don't care how little someone did ... it's just a total team effort with with everybody coming together and doing it. There were big parts played and small parts played, but at the end of the day, it all mattered."
"I thank my family, they've been very faithful, they put up with all of my tears, my cries, my disappointments, everything, I thank them for that so much," Christon said. "And I truly want to thank my work family. All of my employees here, they've been faithful, they stayed right with us, and they all came back. As soon as we said it's time to come back to work they were here and ready to come back to work."
See photos of the renovated store and ribbon cutting ceremony below.