Down on Walton Way a big cow stands atop a red and white building looking out at the traffic and soaking up the sun. It’s been there for a couple of years now, having moved from its original home on Highway 1, where it had been a fixture since the late ‘60s. Some folks know it by sight, while others are more familiar with its owner, Wayne Lanier, owner of Lanier’s Fresh Meat Market and one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet.
Lanier’s was started by Wayne’s oldest brother, Terry, in 1969. After Terry, another brother, James, managed the company until Wayne eventually took the reins. Growing up on a farm in rural Georgia during the ‘50s and ‘60s, the family was already associated with cattle. Their father had worked on the farm all their lives, and one of their distant cousins owned a meat processing plant — meat processing is something Wayne feels is in their blood.
“Kinda like carpenters, or other trades, once it gets in the family it shapes and changes you,” he said. “I know when I go into a store, the first place I go is the meat counter to see what they’ve got.”
The Lanier farm is located out Highway 1 on the way to Wrens; from ’69 to ‘85 when James and Terry were running things, the focus was on neighbors and local community. While the young business was growing, Wayne went to school and then onto University of Georgia where he majored in agriculture and economics with a minor in animal science.
He said that when his brothers started out, the company was built for custom slaughter.
“At the time, many people in that area had their own livestock — they had maybe a couple of hogs or some cows,” he said. “And they’d put them in a truck and bring them to us and tell us how they wanted them processed. We had an inspector from the Department of Agriculture who had an office out there and who inspected the cows before they were killed, and he’d put the USDA stamp on it.”
As trends changed, so did the Lanier’s approach to their industry. The 1980s and 1990s were a particularly transformative time for the meat packing industry. Not only were local farmers finding it hard to compete with larger companies, but their customers discovered they no longer had to look to local providers and instead could “conveniently” buy pre-packaged portions at an affordable price in the larger grocery markets.
Warehouse stores, including Walmart and Sam’s Club, started squeezing out the smaller companies and by the late ‘90s, the top four firms accounted for roughly 50 percent of all U.S. poultry and pork production, and a whopping 80 percent of all beef production.
To adapt to these changes, James took the company in a slightly different direction. Lanier’s started to explore the retail side of the industry, an aspect of the business that would expand even more when Wayne took over. Wayne said the change was the right response to the growing demand for ready-packaged meat, “It is progress. Back then everyone had their own animals. Now, nobody does.”
With profits slashed by the infiltration of larger providers, smaller meat processing companies had to find other ways to appeal to customers — competing in terms of quantity alone wasn’t going to cut it. Luckily for Wayne’s employees and customers, the Lanier way is not to focus on how much they can profit, but rather on quality of both the product and customer service. The result is a unique shopping experience for customers of all backgrounds, income and age.
The Lanier family loves what they are doing because it allows them to take care of others.
“Many people have said to me that this store’s doing well, so when am I going to open another one,” Wayne said. “But I really just want to do real well here in this location. I also want the people who are working with me to do well, too. I am not about making lots of money at all costs — I really just want to be comfortable and content.”
To do so, Wayne has made a conscious decision to put the consumer first.
“This weekend I’m going to have a sale on chicken,” he explained. “A 40-pound case of leg quarters for $14.99, which is dirt cheap. I like to see other people benefit. I enjoy helping and giving to them.”
This connection with customers is something that has been years in the making, and Wayne sees many of the same faces return year upon year.
“Some of the customers who shop with me now shopped with me 20 years ago when they were little children coming in with their mother or grandmother. It’s become a generational thing. So many of my customers have known me for all their lives.”
For the sake of his customers — many of them residents of Richmond County — Lanier’s Meat Market moved to Augusta in December of 2013, but the transition didn’t go as smoothly as Wayne would have liked. Another lot further down Walton Way near 10th Street was originally selected as the new location, but the process was a struggle and Wayne started looking for another potential building.
After months of giving literally everything he had to make it work, Wayne stumbled upon 1831 Walton Way.
“It was a dream I had,” he said. “I wanted to find a nice big building but I didn’t have a lot of money saved — I just wanted to go for it and so I went for it. I mortgaged everything I had and borrowed money to go all in. I was blessed — it paid off. The community, and Augusta in general, has supported me and encouraged me and everything is great.”
Lanier’s customers are so central to the store’s success that they drive every business decision Wayne makes. How the business operates is simple — Lanier’s offers affordable, fresh, local, healthy meat, fish and poultry. But, it doesn’t stop there. The store is clean and spacious, the products are of a high quality, and Lanier’s employees deliver top notch customer service.
In fact, the main difference between Lanier’s and many other stores is its employees — and I mean all the employees. No matter who you are, whether you are a first-time customer or someone whose family has been buying from Lanier’s for the last 45 years, the service provided is exemplary. Lanier’s employees are friendly, knowledgeable and helpful — they even help take your bags out to your car. They are attentive, competent and know how to listen; they also look like they are enjoying their jobs.
And it’s a part of the shopping experience that gets the most mention on social media. Out of nearly 200 customer reviews on Facebook, the majority mention the excellent customer service and the positive attitude of the employees. Wayne says that might have something to do with management.
“We really don’t have a turnover — everybody stays,” he said. “I’m flexible and generous, and I encourage them to take control of their job — yes, they interact with the customers, but they also know their job inside out. They are experienced professionals who take pride in what they do. Sure, you’re gonna have bumps — you’re dealing with people — but it’s really just like a family here.”
Lanier’s also makes buying in bulk easy. Customers can choose from individual meat selections, or they buy a “pack” designed to suit their lifestyle. For instance, the “Grill Master” pack, priced at $129.99, includes five pounds of T-bone steaks, 10 pounds of riblets, 20 pounds leg quarters, five pounds of chops, five pounds of smoked sausage and four pounds of hot dogs. The “Breakfast Pack,” priced at $65.99, offers country bacon, ham, sausage, hash browns, biscuits, eggs and a jar of jelly.
There are approximately 10 packs to choose from, not to mention the additional items on offer — frog legs, quail and alligator are all available through Lanier’s. The jars of jellies and other condiments come from a local Mennonite farm and are absolutely delicious. Also available are vegetables, biscuits, eggs, milk and much more. Customers can get virtually all their weekly grocery shopping done at Lanier’s.
The certified Angus beef sold at Lanier’s is the best beef in Augusta, Wayne claims.
“I’m the only licensed retailer in Augusta,” Wayne said. ”You have to meet their requirements — there are 10 standards the beef has to meet that goes beyond USDA inspections.”
These specifications cover marbling and maturity, as well as consistency in sizing and appearance. All of these aspects affect the quality, tenderness and taste of the beef. According to Wayne’s customers, you can truly taste the difference.
The money he makes on beef is nominal and Lanier’s really only makes money on two other popular items — chicken and pork. But one thing you won’t find in Lanier’s is hormone-injected meat. All products are free of hormones, antibiotics and steroids, and all of them are farmed locally. Though he doesn’t supply commercial customers with bulk orders, Wayne said he’s very happy to help anyone out as best he can, whether if it’s for their home or their business.
Wayne’s love of flexibility extends to the checkout process. Customers can pay with cash, credit card or EBT. I asked Wayne about the option to buy his products with EBT and he responded firmly.
“It is a great stimulus program, and anyone who says otherwise needs to check themselves,” he said. “It puts money back into the system that otherwise wouldn’t be there. It pays farmers, it pays truck drivers and it pays people who work in the warehouses. It impacts just about every part of the economy.”
EBT is the latest incarnation of the food stamps program, established to help combat severe domestic hunger — an estimated 45 million people in the United States use EBT each month, which covers food purchases only. Often used to supplement low incomes, the program offers people the opportunity to buy the food they need for sustenance and health. Some people cite abuse and fraud as reasons to abandon or abolish the program, while others believe the benefits of feeding people in need far outweigh these contentious issues.
Wayne Lanier falls into the latter category.
“Not only do I accept EBT, but I appreciate it so much,” he said. “It’s accepted here no matter where you’re from — South Carolina, Georgia, wherever, I can sell you food. And look, there’s fraud everywhere and probably more big-money fraud in other parts of the government than in this program. The majority of the people who use EBT really need it — their food is just a drop in the bucket as compared to what’s spent unnecessarily by government on conflicts in other countries. We have hungry people here in America who need help. Why people can’t realize that and appreciate that, I don’t understand.”
Being accommodating seems to come naturally to the Lanier family. They have a history that has enriched not only the individual family members, but their neighborhood and wider community. The store itself is decorated with items from the Lanier family farm — old tin signs, tools and toys from an age ago that would otherwise be sitting in their barn. These collectibles are now a source of conversation among Wayne’s customers, some of whom have added their own items to his collection.
“People come and give me stuff now. I put their things out and now they come in to our store and see things like their old overalls which are hanging up there, or one lady’s sweater that’s up there and another one’s clock.”
Making connections and celebrating life is part of Lanier’s business model, too. Wayne believes this is another part of working in his company that instills a sense of ownership among his employees.
“The meat business is very much a profession. Our product isn’t pre-packaged — we are grinding beef 20 times a day, for example — and it’s there for them to handle, to prepare and to provide. They are a vital part of that process and it gives them pride.”
The same is true of coming up with new ways to make life easier for his customers. Lanier’s already offers a text service — customers can text the word “meat” to a number that will automatically send them a text message notifying them of weekly specials. These specials are also featured on Lanier’s Facebook page, generating a lot of excitement and contributing to their high volume of sales.
Looking to the future, customers will be able to have even more control over their food orders and pickup, says Wayne. He has a lot of great ideas for the years ahead and told me it was very important to him to do as much as he can for the customers and his business.
“I want to continue to learn, I want us to grow — to do better.”
You can visit Wayne and his cheerful crew at Lanier’s Fresh Meat Market, located at 1831 Walton Way, Monday-Friday from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Call them at 706-733-3313 or find them on Facebook at facebook.com/laniersfreshmeatmarket.