Much makes Wayne Lee’s Grocery and Market unique from its radio commercials to the story behind the store.
Its comical commercials on local WRBE Radio aren’t just catchy quips; they offer insight into the grocery company’s commitment to the community. In the advertisements, local radio celebrities Lindsey Whittaker and her mother Jackie Shirley portray Ethel and her friend discussing a shopping experience at the big box store down the street. The ads give a quick script about what sets Wayne Lee’s apart from big chains. The funny spoof states the friendly folks at Wayne Lee’s don’t make you check out your own groceries, and they don’t make you show a proof of purchase when you exit the building.
Wayne Lee’s is the kind of store which still bags its customers’ groceries and, if requested, loads them into customers’ cars. Speaking of bagging groceries, at the helm of the two-store enterprise is Perry Wayne Lee, who once bagged groceries himself. The CEO and President of the company has worked in the store since he was 13 years old doing odd jobs. He became a bag boy when he was 16. Folks who know his work ethic will attest that if he needed to help bag groceries today, he’d jump right to it.
Perry Wayne became the company’s manager in 1978 when his father, Wayne Lee, died unexpectedly. The company had been owned by Wayne and his wife Juanita (Nita). Nita became the majority owner until her death in 1991. Today Perry Wayne and his sisters own the business. His sisters are Suzy Sykes of Lady Lake, Fla., Waynette Frantz of Pascagoula, and Mona Broome of Destin, Fla. They all grew up working in the store and Waynette still works there. Wayne Lee’s son from a previous marriage is Jerry Lee, who passed away last year. Jerry Lee owned stores bearing his own name in Pascagoula and Gautier. His family recently sold those two businesses to a southern chain of stores called Ramey’s Marketplace.
Leading the Lucedale store is another hard-working Lee, Doug Lee. Doug is Perry Wayne’s first cousin. Doug’s father, Simon Henry (S.H.) Lee and Wayne Lee were brothers. Doug’s first job at Wayne Lee’s Grocery and Market was at the Pascagoula store where he handed out free soda pops on Fridays. He was eight years old. His uncle, Wayne Lee, had an eye for business and understood customer satisfaction; therefore, on Fridays he would give each customer a free, ice-cold, six-ounce bottled Coca-Cola. When the Lucedale store opened in 1978, Perry Wayne was intended to be the manager, and Doug was to be the assistant manager. When Wayne Lee passed away shortly after that opening, Doug was put in charge of the Lucedale store and Perry Wayne was placed in charge of the Pascagoula store.
So, who was Wayne Lee? Wayne Lee grew up in the town of Columbia and started in the grocery business as a bag boy and delivery boy when he was 13. He later became a butcher and started his own store in 1939. However, the meat shortage during World War II brought about opportunities for him to move away from Columbia. In 1942 he moved to Pascagoula where he operated two different meat markets throughout the following few years. His first grocery market in Pascagoula was in the Bozo’s seafood building on Ingalls Avenue. After a couple of years, he sold the business and moved back to Columbia. In 1953 Wayne and Nita returned to Pascagoula and purchased the store on Telephone Road. In 1974 they built a new 25,000 square-foot store behind the original store on Telephone Road. Four years later, in 1978, they opened a second location which is the Lucedale store on Old Highway 63. A month after it opened, Wayne Lee died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm. Perry Wayne had completed business college by then and was working for his father. He became the company’s leader at a young age and credits his managers and staff with helping keep his father’s legacy and reputation alive and sound.
In 1986 the family expanded the Pascagoula store by 11,000 square feet, something the store’s founder had planned to do. In 1999 they remodeled the Lucedale store. The company owns the commercial strip where Wayne Lee’s of Lucedale is located with the exclusion of the center section where Dirt Cheap is housed. According to Perry Wayne that section once contained TG&Y, a discount department store. TG&Y wanted to buy the facility instead of rent it. Perry Wayne’s father also had purchased land in Escatawpa to possibly build a third store.
Today’s store in Pascagoula is 42,000 square feet and employs 100 people. The Lucedale store is 32,000 square feet and has 65 employees. The founder’s photos hang in the stores including one of Wayne and Nita Lee in their early years and one of Wayne Lee at a desk. The photos show Wayne Lee with an arm missing as he had lost it in an automobile accident. The Lucedale store underwent renovations in early 2022 including the addition of local photos like the George County courthouse.
The store’s reputation as the “Home of Choice Beef” is branded throughout Jackson and George counties. Wayne Lee’s carries more than food. It’s also known for selling products that meet the community’s needs such as fishing supplies, rocking chairs, hay bales and plants. They also serve what the community wants by selling produce from local farmers such as Stanton Fairley’s watermelons, vegetables and melons from Croom’s Farms and hay from S.L. Ferrill.
Ferrill began working for Wayne Lee decades ago and his son continues that working relationship. Part of the Wayne Lee enterprise includes Wayne Lee Farms. Ferrill managed the enterprise’s George County property at Barton where Lee grew red potatoes, raised cattle and produced hay, all marketable merchandise at the grocery store. Hay is also cut from the vacant lot behind the grocery store and strip mall. “Mr. Lee would also do things like buy a whole watermelon patch and sell the melons in the store,” Doug said. The store also sells 55-gallon metal drums which are often bought by townsfolk for burning trash. “About four or five years ago, the deli started doing really well and we realized we had a lot of tin cans going to waste. So, we started cleaning them and selling them for 10 cents a-piece. People put them on wooden fence posts to protect the posts or use them for other means. This way they don’t go to waste,” Doug said. Another popular and unique item is the empty ice cream container customers buy for freezing freshly caught shrimp.
The next time you’re shopping Wayne Lee’s, take a moment to look at the founder’s photographs and ponder the history of this icon. And look for WRBE’s “Ethel” to see if she’s come to her senses about those big box chain stores.