On a winding, two-lane road in a tiny, dot-on-the-map town rests one of the last locally owned and operated private grocery stores left in northern Kentucky.
A visitor to Bruce’s Grocery Store in Mason passes an old-fashioned gasoline pump as she pulls into the parking lot and notices that air for tires is free. Inside, Velva “Jewel” Bruce usually can be found at a table by the coffee pot, reading her morning paper. The matriarch of the Bruce family, Jewel still lives in the apartment above the grocery store where she raised her three boys with her husband, Robert “Kelly” Bruce. Scott and Lee, the two sons who manage the day-to-day operations at the store, frequently stop by to check on their mom. “You need anything, Mom?” Lee might ask while pushing a cart of boxes past the checkout lanes.
Bruce’s Grocery is the kind of place where everyone knows you—and if they don’t know you, they will make it a point to get to know you. They’ve built their business on appreciating their customers and their needs. That’s how Bruce’s Grocery got the reputation of being the place to go to find anything.
A Family Affair
When Lawrence and Ella Bruce rolled through Grant County in the 1920s on their husker wagon—a covered wagon that essentially served as a mobile grocery store, complete with shelving stocked with coffee, tea, sugar, flour, beans and other sundries—they found a great community where they could raise their children, twins Robert “Kelly” and Ruby “Katherin,” and begin to build their dreams.
“My dad was trying to find an area where he could raise us. Kelly and I were just 2 months old when we moved to Grant County,” said Ruby “Katherin” Winn. “My dad was an entrepreneur. He was not content being a farmer, so in 1936 he decided it was time to be on his own and start the business.”
At the time the store was built, it was situated steps away from the train depot on U.S. 25. Although the depot is long gone, you can still see where the original store stood—marked by four posts surrounding the checkout lanes in the current, expanded store.
Although Kelly passed away in 1996, most regulars of the grocery still refer to it as Kelly Bruce’s. Katherin still comes and stocks the housewares section of the store once a week. “I’ve done a little bit of everything in this store,” she said.
“Dad always told me to do whatever made me happy,” Scott said. “He never pressured any of us to go into the family business—it just happened to work out that way.”
Scott manages the meat department, which is one of the store’s most popular. “In the summer, people bring big coolers and load them up with meat,” Scott explained. Lee oversees the hardware department, and their older brother, R.K. Jr., handles the finances from his home in Louisville.
Now with his own daughter, Baylee, Scott is in a situation similar to that of his dad all those years ago. “She enjoys working here right now, but I don’t know what she’ll decide to do after college,” Scott said. “I just want her to do what makes her happy.”
Baylee, a junior at Grant County High School, plans to attend college and study business after graduation. While she does plan on coming home to take over the family business, she has something she wants to do first. “I plan to travel … anywhere,” she said. “I want to explore Europe. Once I’ve gone out and done my own thing, I’ll probably be ready to come back home.”
Baylee said she doesn’t have regular conversations with her dad about taking over the business, but it’s always been a pretty prominent option. ”Being part of a fourth-generation family business has given me strong values. It makes me think … and take into consideration how much family commitment should be in my household and within my family.”
If You Stock It, They Will Come
The entire Bruce family knows the secret to their success has always been meeting the needs of their customers. It started years ago with Lawrence. Any time a customer would come to the store looking for an item that the Bruces didn’t carry, Lawrence would do his best to get the item. He would continue to stock the item as long as there was a demand. So, many items have been stocked at Bruce’s for almost 100 years.
This method of stocking their grocery has led the family to add on to the store several times over the years, even expanding across the street, where their animal feed, piping, plumbing and electrical supplies are located.
“The strangest request I ever got was for a well bucket,” Lee said. “It’s the actual bucket used to collect water out of the well … and we still carry them.”
Scott said the store’s variety of products has resulted in some unique nicknames. “Joe White [an employee at the store for 42 years] calls us the Mason Mall.”