Written by Sherry Lucas | Photographed by Joe Ellis

They’re embedded in her mind, “like children,” Kathy McDade says of her and husband Greg’s four McDade’s Markets in Jackson, tucked into the hearts of the capital city’s historic neighborhoods.

McDade’s in Fondren was second in the birth order. First born was the Maywood Mart store (formerly a Sunflower) in 1996, that was joined by a wine shop next door in 2000. The Fondren location was a Jitney Jungle first, a Winn-Dixie next, then up for sale. McDade’s Market added the Fondren store in October 2004.

“We’re just glad to be there,” she says, joining the district’s transition to a creative hub for businesses, restaurants, arts and more. “And, it’s still growing … so that’s exciting!”

The grocery business that became the destination for this couple, both Arkansas natives, wasn’t part of any pre-planned route. They had each started out as part-timers in the industry that ultimately became their career path, learning the business from the bottom up. “We got our grocery education in the grocery industry itself, with a lot of great people that, over the years, mentored us.”

Greg worked for a grocery store to pay his way through college at Louisiana Tech. After graduation with a degree in forestry and wildlife management, he worked in that field for several years before returning to the grocery industry, in upper management, Kathy McDade says.

Kathy had been working at a Pine Bluff law firm when a contact begged her to come work as the office manager in a Safeway grocery.

“That’s where we met each other, in a grocery store. Isn’t that funny? Next month (August), we’ll be married for 32 years,” she says. “We call Mississippi home because we’ve been here for… 21 years this May.”

In careers at Safeway/Harvest Foods, he became one of the district managers in the Little Rock division and she, the deli director and buyer. Ultimately, they left the corporate grocery world to forge an independent path that took root in Jackson.

After the Fondren store, the Belhaven McDade’s Market followed in August 2005 and the one at Westland Plaza in 2006. Each is unique.

“They’re neighborhood stores. We’re not Walmart and we’re not Kroger. We try to be that conventional grocery store and offer you everything, but in the more intimate/neighborhood setting.

“A lot of times, when you’re working for a large company like that, everything’s cookie-cutter. There’s a program and every store does that. But with us, it was like, sure, you’ve got the basics — Tide, mayonnaise, paper towels, toilet paper — but each store has its own personality,” attuned to its customers’ wants and needs.

The McDades are now empty nesters, with three grown children — two sons and a daughter and seven grandchildren. Their children worked in the stores when they were growing up, “then went on to do their own thing,” she says.

When they do have off time, they love the outdoors, she says. “I’m the sports nerd in the family. I keep up with and love going to SEC football games. … And Greg is an avid water skier and loves to hunt.”

In Fondren, McDade’s anchors the historic Woodland Hills Shopping Center. The iconic Brent’s Drugs next door dishes up nostalgia with each soda fountain milkshake. The “Happy Shopper” sign on the wall between them is a fun reminder of the time “The Help” filmed there; her old-fashioned whimsy still feels at home.

Also distinctive at Fondren: a diverse mix of customers ranging from millennials to elders; the popular hot food/deli bar; the smoker that cooks chickens daily for all the stores but share its savory aroma only with Fondren shoppers.

McDade’s in Fondren continued to be the go-to grocery for Henry Holman (Jitney Jungle chain leader for decades), in his later years. Kathy McDade recalls his excitement that the store was once again family-owned and operated. “That was a real treat, that he was so proud.”

Jitney had sold a popular homemade pimento cheese for years, Holman’s family recipe, that wasn’t part of the Winn-Dixie deal. When McDade’s acquired the store, her deli manager and staff urged her to ask if they could bring it back.

So, one day when Holman came in, she asked his permission — even suggesting they put his family name on it. “He was very serious. He looked at me and, he said, ’Absolutely not. I don’t want my name on it, but you can make it. But let’s just call it ‘Our Famous Homemade Pimento Cheese.’

“We’ve been making it ever since,” she says — from scratch, hundreds of pounds a week.