By Steve Novotney
Two brothers are working the counter, another one is stocking the shelves, and another is manning the deli counter. That persistent “Ding!” means yet another vehicle has pulled up to the drive-through window, and one order after another means raised voices from counter to deli as another of the 100-plus sandwiches served daily must be prepared as quickly as possible.
There are the daily lunch specials: Meatball Monday; Taco Tuesday; Weiner Wednesday; Pulled Pork Thursday; and Philly Steak Friday. Fridays also feature Coleman’s Fish sandwiches, and the weekends are all about the fried chicken.
That’s how the Miller brothers go about business at Neely’s Grocery in East Wheeling, and that’s seven days per week, 18 hours per day every day except on Christmas. Only a few things have changed since the founders, Vernon and Nancy Neely, opened the store in April 1956 across 16th Street in the building that once housed the Keg & Kraut Restaurant, but the mindset inside the walls has remained the same.
“One of the reasons why I believe we are still here is that concept of family. We treat people like they want to be treated no matter what walk of life they may be,” said 58-year-old Scott Miller. “It doesn’t matter where you come from; everybody expects a little dignity when they come through that door. If you treat them like that, they will come back. Mr. Neely always said, ‘Treat everyone the same because everyone’s money is green.’ I’ll never forget that quote.
“Our prices may be a little higher, but we present our product in a nice way, and we are fair and treat people the way they deserve to be treated. Everybody likes good service with a smile, and that’s something we emphasize. Even on our receipts, there’s a smiley face and the words, ‘Be Happy.’ Those were our mother’s dying words. ‘Be happy.’”
Lance Miller is the oldest of the six sons of Harold and Idalu Miller. Idalu and Nancy Neely were sisters, and their maiden name was Detweiler. The 61-year-old Lance was the first to begin working at Neely’s more than 40 years ago after the business moved to its current location where the Green Lantern Tavern was once, and he has represented the business every time the East Wheeling Business Council has interacted with city, county or state government. He, too, believes in the lessons he learned from the founders.
“That’s why they come back to us time after time, and that’s another thing we try to do because they don’t get treated like that at the bigger stores,” Lance said. “Part of what we do is selling ourselves. Everything we have in this store, everyone else has too, so we make sure there is a difference inside our store, and the big difference is that we treat our customers like they are our friends. And many of them are our friends because of the years that they have been coming here.
“That’s the way it’s been here since the beginning,” Lance continued. “And it’s become more and more important through the years because there’s so much more competition these days. Not only did we survive the opening of the city’s first Convenient store across the street, but the big-boxers have impacted us, too.
“Our country’s small businesses are in competition with the government,” Lance insisted. “And we can’t beat them. If government had to work in a small business like this one, they would lose, too. Small businesses are supposed to be the backbone of our country, but small businesses are being pushed out by big business, and the government is on the side of big business.
“We’re a dinosaur. You don’t see places like this one open up anymore,” he said. “And if they do, those stores are a part of a chain, and they can buy in bulk. That’s not something we’re capable of doing, so our prices are a little higher than what they are at those big-box stores.”
One way Neely’s continues to compete is the drive-through window, an innovation that took place in 1987 despite the objections voiced by Vernon and Nancy. Today, that two-foot-by-two-foot sliding glass window attracts approximately 35 percent of the store’s business.
“At a time when I was with the Neelys in Florida, the other boys knocked out the hole for the window,” Scott recalled. “They were opposed to doing it, so that’s how that went down, but it’s been a lifesaver because you have to stay up with the times.
“There are a lot of people who are always on the go, and there are the moms who have their kids in the car, and it’s tough to come in the store in those situations,” he said. “We go the extra mile because you can’t get service like that at the bigger stores.”
All six Miller sons have been involved with the Neely’s operation, but through the years Kelly (57) and Shawn (51) have chosen different paths. Lori Ann, the lone sister of the Millers’ seven children, worked only briefly at Neely’s before pursuing a different career.
“We were the closest thing to kids for my aunt, and she was like a second mother to us,” 53-year-old Todd explained. “Nancy Neely has always been like a second mother to all of the Miller brothers. She was a mother figure in all of our eyes because our mother died at the age of 57. Our aunt helped raise us from the start, and she continued.
“We all work six days a week, but every other weekend we do get the weekend off,” Rod said. “The same goes with my twin, Todd, too, so it gives us time to be with our families, and that’s always been most important to all of us.
“That’s one of many reasons why we all have stayed here working at the store; we all hold our families very close to our hearts,” he said. “We were always taught to be close with one another, and with Jesus Christ, no matter what. Do we have our arguments? Yes we do, but we make it work because of the way we were raised. It’s all about forgiving and forgetting.”
Along with the Miller brothers, Neely’s Grocery also employs three others: Megan Hoskins, Amanda Grubba, and Tina Marone. Several others, the brothers said, have also earned paychecks from the store: Scott’s children Jason and Brian; Rod’s son, R.J.; Todd’s children, Matthew and Maria; Lance’s daughter, Marla; Kelly’s son, Kevin; and Vernon’s nephew, George Seibert.
“It can be hard working alongside family all day because we all have different attitudes,” Scott said. “But we work through those rare times when our opinions differ, but that’s because of the way we were raised.”
Neely’s Grocery is well known in Wheeling for those lunch specials and for the friendly service, but the store also owns a reputation for selling winning lottery tickets. When the Powerball reaches higher into the many-millions, the line at the to-go window frequently circles the shop.
“We do have a wall of winners in the store,” said Scott. “But that reputation started a long time ago after the first big winner, and now we have a lot of folks coming here when the numbers get really, really high.
“I’m still not sure why so many more people play things like the Powerball and the Mega Millions only when the amounts reach a certain point because I’m pretty sure $20 million would be pretty nice to win, too,” he said with a laugh. “It’s all about what the people want whether they come into the store or pull up to the window. As long as we are open, we’re happy to offer what we offer.”
More than 10 years ago the Miller brothers were considering getting into the Limited Video Lottery business, and they even planned to construct a new building on their East Wheeling property to house the machines. The blueprints were completed, the applications filled out, and a machine distributor was identified.
But that’s when Nancy Neely posed an important question to the young men.
“My aunt asked us if we were going to feed the people who put all their money into the machines,” Lance recalled. “She asked if we were going to give them the bread, the milk, and the eggs.
“She said, ‘You were never poor. You were never hungry.’ And she told us that when people play those machines, far too many of them put every nickel they have in them praying for something they don’t have,” he said. “I know we still sell the other lottery tickets and drawings, and we do very well, and we have a lot of winners here, but that’s her wish, and we respected that.”
Many changes have taken place to the East Wheeling neighborhood since the doors first swung open 59 years ago. One of Wheeling’s original neighborhoods, the area was home to both the wealthy and the workers, and half of this section of the Friendly City was populated by many industrial companies and several more taverns.
“When Zanke’s Bar closed just down Wood Street, we lost a lot,” Lance explained. “This side of East Wheeling was booming back in those days. People used to say that you could quit a job in the morning and have a new job by the afternoon. That’s how much was going on back then on this side of East Wheeling.
“East Wheeling has changed a lot, and it’s been getting better and better in recent years,” he said. “In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, it got pretty bad because of the drugs and all the other crimes that follow drug activity. We had to be pretty careful back in those days because we didn’t know what to expect. But these days, we see the neighborhood coming back and a lot of those new people come here because of the convenience and because of the service.”
The construction of the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park across 16th Street has added to the customer flow at Neely’s, but the brothers are hopeful more development will continue to improve safety along the always-buzzing roadway.
“It helps quite a bit during the spring and summer months, and we’re hopeful we can get the crosswalk on 16th Street so the kids can be safe when they are crossing. It’s a really a busy street,” said Rod. “The city of Wheeling did a great thing by replacing what was there with that complex, but we didn’t know what to think at first because we knew we were going to lose a few customers who still lived in that area, but it’s been positive for us because of the positive impact it has had on East Wheeling as a whole.”
The shelves are fully stocked with everything from ingredients to prepared foods, and the needs of the neighborhood have always guided the Miller brothers when ordering from vendor after vendor. Tuesdays are always busy with deliveries, but new products flow into Neely’s on a daily basis.
“We don’t have a mission statement or anything like that, but we have what the people have needed for all these years because we understand that not everyone drives and that not everyone has the time to go here and go there,” Lance said. “We hear from our customers that they are happy we are still here and that it doesn’t look like we’re going anywhere soon.
“We get to see a lot of our customers almost every day because stopping here is something they want to make a part of their days for whatever reason,” he said. “There are so many great people in this city and we’re just lucky many of them choose to come see us as often as they do.”
Eighteen hours per day, seven days per week, one customer after another – that’s the reality encountered by these Miller brothers as they operate one of the last-standing grocery operations doing business in East Wheeling. There exists no time clock for them to punch-in and punch-out, and there are no specific duties assigned, either. Instead, it’s about what Vernon and Nancy Neely started nearly 60 years ago.
“Each one of us works between 50 to 60 hours per week, and we’re open every single day of the year from 6 a.m. to midnight except for Christmas,” Lance explained. “The Neelys used to tell us all the time that we can’t make any money with the doors locked so the doors stay open 18 hours a day.
“We don’t own it. It owns us,” Lance added. “But because the owners are the majority of the people who are working here, you know you’re going to get great service. That’s what we’re all about. Service.”
(A tale about another long-time Wheeling business? … http://weelunk.com/bailey-business/)