Bailey's General Store in Sanibel, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Sept. 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Johnson family.)
As a third- and fourth-generation family operating a grocery business in Florida that dates to 1899, the Johnsons had some experience preparing for hurricanes. So, when Hurricane Ian was barreling towards the Gulf Coast last September, the owners of Bailey's General Store in Sanibel took familiar preparations.
“Hurricanes in Florida are like tornadoes in the Midwest and fires in California,” Calli Johnson, wine steward for her family’s operation, told Progressive Grocer in an exclusive interview. She pointed out that the building had withstood Hurricane Charlie in 2004 and Hurricane Irma in 2017.
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However, as Ian gained strength and was projected to come ashore as a Category 5 storm, the family understood that this was shaping up to be a different kind of weather event. “We usually stay for that kind of thing, but the storm turned toward us and I got up at 3 a.m. and said, ‘We have to get off the island’,” Johnson recalled, adding that the predicted 18-foot storm surge could wreak real havoc. “We made sure everything was locked and the generator we bought was on. I gave it (the store) a kiss and said, ‘See you tomorrow.’”
That was nearly nine months ago. Hurricane Ian wiped out much of Sanibel, a barrier island near Fort Myers, on the afternoon of Sept. 28, 2022. Bailey’s General Store, while still standing, sustained catastrophic damage. “We found out that the causeway was breached and that our front door was breached by the surge water, and we also had roof penetration,” she said.
When they returned to Sanibel to secure the building, the family understood they had a rebuild ahead of them. “It was like a bomb went off. I haven’t seen that happen but it’s what I would imagine it looks like,” Johnson remembered. A remediation crew helped them clear the aisles and dispose of unsalvageable merchandise.
Following an official demolition approval by the state of Florida – still in limbo due to many such requests from businesses – the owners are planning to construct a new Bailey’s from the ground up. The future store, as the previous location, will serve year-round residents as well as seasonal visitors who flock to the area for vacations and “snowbird” stays and may be completed as soon as mid-2025.
There is some precedent for the project. “This is not the first time we’ve been a total loss from a hurricane – our first store was ripped off from the wharf where it was sitting in 1926 and they built another store,” shared Johnson.
Thankfully, a separate retail business that the Johnsons run on nearby Captiva Island, The Island Store, only had six inches of water in the building and was able to reopen fairly quickly. “We were up to open for the holidays, and that was nice. It’s a resort-style store, so it’s smaller and we offer basics,” she explained.
The proprietors also got an e-grocery business up and running in the wake of the storm. “We realized there were so many people who wanted to buy something and support us and also feel like they had control over something – they still wanted a piece of one of their favorite places to go,” Johnson said.
The new 65,000-square-foot Bailey’s General Store will be as hurricane-proof as possible, to protect against the wind as well as storm surge. “We are rebuilding more resiliently for the future, so we can take care of everything we know and love doing. We want to fully elevate the enter center of the store, aside from the one building that is historic," she explained. A rooftop solar farm is also planned.
While the family, including Calli Johnson, her brother, Dane, her sister, Bailie, and her parents, Mead (née Bailey) and Richard Johnson, has been working on plans for the new store, they have also spent the past several months cleaning up and improving their own homes that were damaged by Hurricane Ian.
The Johnsons are also carrying on the resiliency that has sustained the family business for more than a century. “My grandfather was still a kid when the hurricane came (in 1926). He told my parents, who told me, that he remembered walking down the road to check out the store and the water was so high that he had to hold onto his dad’s belt loops as they walked through the floodwaters,” Johnson said.
In the meantime, the family is grateful for the support they have received from their shoppers, vendors and other partners. “The community is so wonderful, telling us how much they miss us and look forward to having us back,” Johnson remarked.