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Sanibel Secrets: The Islands' Adopted Son

February 21, 2014
By ROBBIE SPENCER (rspencer@breezenewspapers.com) , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

Some things never change, but some have to.

The Sanibel Packing Company was founded in 1899 by Frank P. Bailey, 64 years before the Sanibel Causeway was built. The Sanibel Packing Co. provided groceries and general supplies to locals and visitors.

Today his company operates as Bailey's General Store, thriving in its 115th year serving Sanibel and Captiva Island visitors, and under the care and direction of the family's third generation of Baileys. Bailey's store has evolved into Sanibel's one-stop shop for all grocery, hardware and gift needs.

Article Photos

Richard and Mead with one of their chef’s wonderful birthday creations for a loyal employee.

Frank's son, Francis, took over the family business in 1948, was joined by his brother Sam in the 1980s, and promptly became two of the most legendary Islanders in Sanibel's history.

Francis oversaw a massive amount of change and development on the islands. He documented his many experiences on the islands and the Bailey family history in his autobiography, My 92 Years on Sanibel. The book was published just months before his passing on June 8, 2013.

Back in 2004, he and Sam sensed that a change might be needed to keep the business growing.

"Everything changed when my father (Francis) went to get a heart valve replaced up in Rochester," Mead said. "He started thinking about his own mortality and thought, 'what am I going to do with this business?' That's when he called to ask me if Richard might be interested."

As soon as Richard Johnson and Mary Mead Bailey met, Sanibel's magical, magnetic pull started edging them south.

They first met while attending college in Virginia.

"I was only there for a short while. We met and, you know, we kind of liked each other," Mead said with a sheepish grin.

"It wasn't apparent at first!" Richard said.

Mead began an illustrious collegiate career, transferring to the University of North Carolina and, eventually, the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, completing two degrees in Marine Technology and Environmental Biology, both fitting for a Sanibel native.

Richard's education began not only in school, but in the workforce. He began a career early on working with a national insurance company owned by a farming family.

"Sanibel Packing Co. also began by a farming family," Mead and Richard noted with a laugh.

Richard and Mead moved to Jacksonville in the early 80's for job opportunities. Richard went back to school and completed his Business degree at the University of Jacksonville's Davis School of Business.

"Our third child attended that graduation as a babe-in-arms," he recalled.

Over thirty years of marriage and three children (Callaway, 22, Bailie, 20, and Dane, 17) later, Richard and Mead recalled their early impressions of Sanibel and how they came to reside on the islands in 2004.

"We drove down to Sanibel from Virginia in an old convertible sports car," Mead said with a laugh. "We got sunburnt like crazy."

"There was no I-75 there yet. We had to cross the state on those small roads," Richard said. He remembers that he first stayed in the Honey House at the Homestead, where it used to be guest quarters.

When Hurricane Charley hit the islands in 2004, it became clearer to Francis and Sam that they couldn't run the business forever. It just so happened they knew someone with experience in disaster relief: Richard Johnson.

Johnson specialized in information technology in addition to disaster relief and internal business consulting with his company.

"When I came down right after Charley it was that background in disaster recovery that piqued my interest, and concern for Mary Mead's father and his brother," he said. "I spent three weeks here in September, and I was back permanently by Thanksgiving."

He soon realized his other skills would aid in the recovery of Sanibel, and Bailey's General Store.

"When I got here the business was struggling. We began a clear plan of pulling the business up by its boot straps," Richard said. "I worked together with Sam and Francis to implement changes to the business, respecting our history and our heritage, but at the same time moving us forward, continuing to evolve."

Their philosophy is simple.

"It was just an emphasis on the same qualities we have today that Francis and his father brought to the business: customer service."

Richard said he re-emphasized this specifically in two ways, both of which required a lot of feedback from the community.

"Making sure that we listen to our guests, paid attention to what they were saying, and then do what they asked us to do."

And how did he go about doing that?

"I made myself available, put myself out there personally in a couple of different ways. One was in the community. We have a long history of that and Mead and I continue to do that today."

Richard has worked with Sanibel's Community Housing and Resources nonprofit organization since the year he moved to Sanibel, working to uphold one of the most important things he learned from his father-in-law.

"Francis told me a healthy community is made up of a diverse population. Grocery men, bankers, lawyers. Francis used to say 'ditch diggers and plumbers, waitresses and waiters,' newspaper reporters and such. All of those different walks of life and socioeconomic levels add to the rich diversity we have in our community."

Richard and Mead work extensively with other nonprofits, including the Chamber of Commerce and Friends in Service Here of Sanibel and Captiva.

"We have a rich, rich culture of nonprofits on the islands. People that are interested in doing good by our environment, people, and animals."

And Richard's impression of Sanibel now, ten years after calling it home?

"We have something here that I've never experienced anywhere else and I challenge anyone to draw a comparison between what we have and other places," Richard declared. "That goes to the people as well as the environment. When you actually live here and become a part of the community you really see the rich cultural diversity that we have here. I think that's one of the things that makes our community so endearing."

Richard and Mead also discussed what the future holds for Bailey's General Store and the outlying businesses on Bailey property. They wouldn't go into much detail, but hinted at major aesthetics changes coming to the outside of Bailey's in the near future.

They said Islanders can look to all the work that's been done to the Island Cinema, the Sanibel Shell Station and George and Wendy's Seafood Grille as hints at what's to come.

They also spoke about other eventual changes.

"Mead and I are the third generation," Richard said. "We recognize the day will come when we step aside. We're preparing that fourth generation to take over at some point."

Richard noted how much work Francis did for the business even up to his final days.

"Francis really enjoyed working, this was his life. He held on to a lot of things. He did a lot more than people think, right up until the last day he was here in the office."

Some things have to change, but some never do.

Francis' office, first door on the right, remains untouched upstairs in Bailey's General Store.

 
 

 

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