After 43 years in the grocery business, John Hailey has been counting the days to his retirement this fall. Now, he’s just got one more Monday left before he checks out as Aspen’s favorite grocery store manager.
Hailey, who has been the store’s general manager at the Aspen market since 1998 but has served in many other roles here and at other stores since the late 1970s, officially retires on Dec. 3.
It’s hard not to run into Hailey in the narrow aisles of the 12,500-square-foot store, and he’s quick to greet customers by name and throw out one of his famous one-liners.
“If you eat, usually I will see you,” he said with his signature grin. “My day is a series of probably 200 two-minute conversations and that’s wonderful, you know, because you get a little bit of everything.”
On Nov. 12, his 18th day left of work, Hailey was stationed near the entrance of the store when a customer walked in.
“Hi Sara Sara,” he said.
She replied self-consciously with a matted head of hair, “How’s my hair?”
“How do you want me to answer that?” he laughed.
She smiled back, slipped her stocking cap on and began her shopping.
He’ll explain to his employees how to “rotate the stripes and change the seeds in the watermelons,” and tell his customers who might be nibbling on something as they shop, “We are going to weigh you now and then on the way out, and charge you the difference.”
When prices get slashed on sale items and are put into the “woohoo!” section, Hailey will say, “We aren’t here to make money, just friends.”
A native of Tennessee who comes from a family of similar humor, Hailey summed up his long tenure at City Market by quipping with his Southern drawl that, “I sold groceries for the last supper.”
Hailey’s humor is just part of his presence in the store.
If a customer doesn’t know where an item is, Hailey is quick to point them in the right direction, and if the store doesn’t have something he’ll try to get it.
“We usually have someone stop in El Jebel (at the City Market) every day and pick items up,” he said.
When asked how he handled the more demanding class of customers who are outside the regular local clientele over the years, Hailey responded in his usual positive manner.
“You tend to remember the negative comments that you get but if you really take a close look at it, the positive ones are probably 99 percent and the negative ones are 1 percent,” he said. “I think the important thing to do is listen with an open mind and react to the things you need to react to.”
Lisa Harris, who has worked at City Market for 36 years, said Hailey always manages to be upbeat and positive.
“We are going to miss him a lot,” she said. “He’s the only guy who comes running when you call for help, everyone else ignores us.”
Hailey recently received a letter from Gov. Jared Polis, commending him for his tenure and service.
That was the doing of Aspen resident Joel Sax, who was able to get a proclamation from the governor regarding Hailey’s contributions to his work and the community.
“He is the best,” said Diane Moore, Sax’s wife. “While we are happy for him and his upcoming retirement, he is irreplaceable.
“It is rare to meet someone with such a positive outlook on life. He is always willing to help everyone in the store. And he has a wicked sense of humor. … We have shared so many laughs with him over the years. We feel very fortunate to have been able to get to know him, and are happy he will be staying in Aspen. There is something special about John’s southern charm.”
Hailey, 65, said it’s the people that he loves most about his job.
“I think that everybody who comes to the grocery store, it’s a chore for them and you know if you can have a couple light-hearted moments, maybe it’ll make your day a little better,” he said.
Hailey has seen many bizarre things in what can be a wacky resort town at times.
There’s the woman who called 911 because the person in front of her had more than 15 items in the express lane, or the cocaine left on the self checkout scanner that fell out of a customer’s wallet or the lady who came in every morning wearing a full-length mink coat in the middle of the summer.
“I started talking to her and I got to know her name and one morning I said, ‘Elizabeth I’m curious why do you wear that coat in here every morning?’ She opened her coat and said ‘cuz I got my pajamas on under here.’”
The famous customers he’s encountered recently have been music legends Ringo Star and Joe Walsh, football player Brett Favre of Green Bay fame and Draymond Green from the Golden State Warriors.
“But my most favorite famous celebrities are Jill St. John and Robert Wagner,” Hailey said. “They are so nice and pleasant and it’s been a real pleasure to see them all the time.”
There have been three big lottery winners during his time at the Aspen store — a $500,000 and a $100,000 winner in recent years. About a decade ago another $100,000 ticket was sold but it was never claimed.
“Somebody once asked me what I would do if I won the Powerball or lottery and I said, ‘I’d buy that house across the street and walk to work,’” Hailey laughed.
Carlos Garcia, assistant store manager who has worked with Hailey for 22 years, said it will be hard to replace his boss.
“He leads by example and is a trustful guy,” Garcia said. “It will be big shoes to fill and wear.”
Kroger Co., the parent company that owns the City Market supermarket retail chain, hasn’t announced Hailey’s replacement yet.
Hailey’s seen some change over the years.
He worked at City Market when the all-natural Snoberries store was in the basement.
He was part of the team that switched the entire store’s inventory from price labels to bar codes.
Self checkout stands went in and online shopping services have become available.
And then there was the remodel about a decade ago that had the entire store under construction.
“That was challenging to operate. … We found asbestos in the ceiling and we had to build a platform eight feet off the floor,” he said. “That was a long winter, but it was actually fun being able to get through that because the customers were surprisingly resilient and they just went with it.”
Hailey said he wouldn’t change a thing about his career.
“The thing that I take away the most for the years of work here are the relationships I’ve made with customers and employees — they are pretty special,” he said. “I think the people who live here are the heart and soul of this place.”
They become like family, Hailey said, pointing out a woman at the service counter who had breast cancer. Hailey explained that he put her mother up at his house during her treatment.
He said he is going to miss the daily interactions with people, and will likely find himself a part-time job.
Hailey said he plans to fill his days with learning how to play the guitar better, take some Spanish classes, hit the casino and horse track, and get in better physical shape.
“I’ll probably take a month off and then I’m going to do something, work somewhere,” he said. “The book is open.”