Ralph Ketner, Food Lion co-founder, dies at 95

Food Lion founder Ralph Ketner in 2011.
Food Lion founder Ralph Ketner in 2011.

Ralph Ketner, the Rowan County businessman who co-founded the supermarket that became Food Lion, has died. He was 95.

Salisbury-based Food Lion, in announcing Ketner’s death late Sunday, noted his “profound and lasting impact” on the grocery industry.

“He has left a tremendous legacy not only at Food Lion, but through his philanthropy and kindness in the Salisbury community as a whole …,” the statement said. “Our associates adored and respected him, and we will miss him dearly.”

Ketner was born Sept. 20, 1920 in Rimertown in Rowan County. When he was 3, Ketner’s family moved to Salisbury, where his father started a butcher shop. Ketner started delivering groceries when he was 9. He later went on to study at Tri-State College in Angola, Ind.

In December 1957, Ketner, his brother Brown Ketner and Wilson Smith started Food Town in Salisbury. He once said he and his co-founders tracked down their first 125 investors in the Salisbury phone book.

That small group invested $50, $100 apiece. An original $50 investment became $1 million over time.

The first 10 years were challenging. But in 1968 Ketner came up with a brainstorm: “lowest food prices in North Carolina” or “LFPINC.”

He brought six months’ worth of invoices and a small adding machine and holed up for several days. He emerged with the plan that revolutionized an industry: slashing prices on the gamble that higher sales volume would cancel out razor-thin profit margins. Sales skyrocketed, from $5 million to $7.2 billion in 25 years.

Food Lion’s parent company, Belgian grocery giant Delhaize, is seeking to complete a $10.4 billion acquisition by Dutch retailer Ahold. Delhaize acquired its first stakes in Ketner’s company in 1974.

Food Town changed its name to Food Lion in 1982 to “represent expansion and the heritage of its parent company,” Food Lion has said.

Ketner retired from the grocery chain in the early 1990s. Until recently, he served as an adjunct professor of the Ketner School of Business at Catawba College and a member of the board of trustees at the school.

By his own estimate, Ketner has donated 35 percent of his net worth to various charities over the years.

In 2011 he donated $1 million to help pay for an upgrade at a Queens University of Charlotte auditorium that bears his name. His philanthropy also benefited the Levine Center, a health and wellness center on the Queens campus.

As recently as December, Food Lion President Meg Ham said she was still meeting with Ketner regularly to talk business.

“I’ve been very impressed with her, “ Ketner said then. “Food Lion started here in 1957 with one store and we were called Food Town. It means so much to North Carolina ... so I wish her well.”

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta