Guest Post by Sarah Eccleston, James Madison University
A lot has changed since Jon Henry’s General Store in New Market first opened in 2018—the store processed payments using an old fashioned register with metal keys and paper receipts, and sold mostly gifts, not groceries. About five years later it has a fully computerized payment system, and sells produce from over 200 farmers, baked goods, pantry essentials, organic meat, silly socks, TikTok trending items and the list goes on.
Before becoming the owner of his own general store, Henry spent eight years in academics at James Madison University (JMU). During his schooling, he made fresh produce sales his side-gig, but not for a moment did he envision produce sales or business would become his livelihood.
“I had never owned a business or gone to business school or thought about owning a business,” said Henry.
His side-gig gave him knowledge about produce, yet Henry had no experience owning a store. However, his education at JMU made him cognisant about the services that the SV SBDC had to offer. So, after deciding that he wanted to open the store, he attended SV SBDC classes and met with Allison Dugan, the SV SBDC’s assistant director and advisor, to help him learn the ins and outs of business and connect him with valuable people and resources.
In the beginning stages of the store the SV SBDC connected him with JMU’s BizLab, which was a digital services group that matched JMU students with small businesses and non-profits.They assisted Henry with creating his logo and website which Henry said that he loved at the time.
Along the way in his business journey Henry went to Dugan again for help on his social media skills. She recommended a social media course at Blue Ridge Community College which he took and it was very helpful in learning how to use social media as a form of advertising.
Two years into the business, the pandemic hit and sales became more complex, so they needed to pivot their system away from old-fashioned registers and paper receipts and onto a fully digital system. It was imperative they learn how to accept Virginia Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (EBT cards), apple pay, google pay and curbside pickup which their system at the time would not support.
Henry again went to the SV SBDC which connected him to the Small Business Resiliency Team (SBRT) program, which helps small businesses with financial management and eCommerce. After working with the program, the store had a fully computerized inventory management system and tackled bookkeeping with QuickBooks.
“It was like, literally, coming out of the dark ages in three months,” said Henry.
The change proved extremely beneficial when the general store became part of the Virginia Fresh Match program, which gives EBT card users 50 percent off fresh produce.
“We had to grow and adapt,” said Henry.
However, Henry saw a problem. People with EBT cards must be 130 percent below the poverty line, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. So, the store stepped up to provide bus fare money for EBT card users. He then got Shen-go, the Shenandoah Valley’s public bus system, to add a bus stop at the general store.
“It’s just been interesting to grow in the last few years and, kind of, realize how important the store is in the community,” said Henry.
The general store has consistently responded to community needs throughout its history. To that end, Henry said that the store is a necessity for their community; without it, New Market would be considered a food desert. After recognizing that their younger customers were scouring stores for TikTok famous products, they started stocking TikTok famous merchandise. The general store further addressed their community’s needs by using extra space from the building next door that the general store recently purchased to create an Airbnb for short-term lodging.
On that note, Henry plans to be an active part of the New Market and Shenandoah Valley communities for years to come.
“It’s kind of like my little anchor and I see myself being her for quite a few decades,” said Henry.