Mountain Character: John Hailey, the face of City Market
October 18, 2015
Three summers ago, John Hailey got a call from a man in Florida who made a curious request: He asked the City Market manager for a pallet of Charmin toilet paper to be ready for him when he arrived a few weeks later.
Hailey said he could accommodate the request, and when the man arrived at the Aspen supermarket to pick up his purchase, he offered two more unusual requests.
"He asked if I could deliver it for him, just to a restaurant," Hailey said. "But then he asked if I could put this big red bow around the pallet of Charmin. I'm getting a little curious, and I ask him what this is for, and he said it's for a friend of his getting married, and he's got everything in the world."
That friend was Wes Welker. You may have heard of him, the former NFL All-Pro wide receiver who played for the New England Patriots at the time. Welker's visit to Aspen would generate national headlines, but not because of the Charmin gift. Rather, it would be over him and a group of friends being thrown out of an Aspen Food & Wine Classic party.
Hailey, however, did his job before Welker's shenanigans. Anyone who's spent much time shopping in City Market has often found themselves looking for something or needing help, and Hailey, since becoming the Aspen City Market's manager in 1998, will gladly handle most any request, no matter how offbeat.
"I've worked in numerous areas, and Aspen has got the best customers by far," he said. "Even with the quirks and the oddities that are presented on a daily basis, all in all, they're the best customers I've ever worked with.
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"They are friendly and they're demanding. Do they want what they want? Yes, but it's not hard to take care of them."
Hailey's experience in the supermarket business runs deep. Raised in Nashville, Tennessee — his Southern accent is alive and well, thank you — Hailey's first job was stocking shelves at the Hurry Back Market in 1969.
He also worked for his dad, a plumbing contractor, and his uncle, a county surveyor, starting in eighth grade.
He would work at other grocery stores before taking off for college, but it wasn't for him. Soon enough, he started worked for a Kroger in Nashville.
He also lived in Denver for period before moving to Aspen in the early 1980s. He worked for Tony Welgos, another fixture in the local grocery-store scene, at the old City Market in Basalt, which was later replaced by the now-defunct Clark's Market store.
Hailey also would work at other grocers throughout the state — in Silverthorne, Nederland, Conifer, Avon and Montrose, as well as in Price, Utah.
"I enjoyed moving around," he said. "I had been single at that point and it was easy for me to move around, and it was usually a step up."
Hailey, 60, has since settled in Aspen. When he's not doing office work or helping customers, he's usually striking up conversations with them, tossing in his colloquial charm.
He said he read no textbook on customer relations or had a mentor, for that matter.
"I've just always been that way," he said. "It's enjoyable for me to help people."
The Aspen store staffing level ranges from 75 to 100 employees depending on the season, Hailey said. The 25,000-square-foot City Market in Aspen is small compared to other supermarkets, so Hailey often finds himself getting items from its sister store in El Jebel.
"The El Jebel store is so much bigger than us and they carry a lot more products," he said.
So, if the Aspen store doesn't have something immediately available for a shopper, Hailey will have someone pick it up from El Jebel.
"We normally have someone going there everyday," he said.
Local legend has it that the Aspen City Market draws the most revenue per square foot in the entire chain of its parent company, Kroger.
"Probably so," Hailey said. "There are stores that do a lot more dollar-wise, but for our size, we do very well."
When he's not working, Hailey said he enjoys taking guitar classes, hitting the casino, watching the stock market and hanging out with his girlfriend. He also has two grown children.