ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE — With a festive atmosphere that rivaled Ringling Brothers or Disney World, Robins Air Force Base opened its new $16 million commissary Thursday.
@MA BodyRR:After a brief ceremony, scores of early-bird shoppers jammed the expansive aisles and display areas of the new 70,000-square-foot facility, taking advantage of food samples, cooking demonstrations, special pricing and registering for shopping sprees and giveaways.
The Heinz Pickle was there. So was the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee. Miss Chiquita Banana handed out samples. The Nesquik Bunny greeted patrons near the frozen food aisle. A huge, inflated red, white and blue eagle guarded the outside entrance, assisted by the Mayfield Dairy cow.
Maj. Gen. Polly Peyer, commander of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, made brief remarks before the doors opened.
“For 30 years, our commissary has been in a 50-year-old building next door,” she told the 200 or more in attendance. “But this new store will have 15,000 more feet of display space. I’m very excited about the opening.”
The general said few people would miss the narrow aisles of the old building and the series of steps and ramps that customers scaled to reach the elevated entrance.
“The aisles in this new building are much wider. No directional arrows,” she said, drawing a hearty laugh from the crowd. “We can have traffic down both sides.
“Of course if you really miss the steps and ramps, you can still do that. The old building will still be there.”
Philip Sakowitz Jr., director and chief executive officer of the Defense Commissary Agency headquartered at Fort Lee, Va., also participated in the festivities.
He said the old commissary served Robins patrons well, but the new facility is much different.
“It was built as a commissary with the kind of things customers said they wanted. No arrows,” he announced to the applause of the crowd.
The new base grocery was financed from the 5 percent surcharge added to every commissary bill. “We open five or six new commissaries each year, and they are all financed from the surcharge,” Sakowitz said. “We collect about $100 million each year.”
The executive said commissary traffic had dramatically increased in recent years. “We have about 2.5 million more customers,” he said. “People come back after they come once.”
Much of the draw is price. Commissary shoppers save about 30 percent compared to commercial prices — a difference of about $3,400 each year for a family of four, according to Defense Commissary Agency data.
Andrea Landez attended the grand opening with her 2-year-old daughter, Avery. The wife of a 5th Combat Communications Group captain on base said she was excited about the new store.
“We made a special trip out here just for this,” said the Warner Robins resident. “I’m real excited about all the room. I’m not going to miss the directional arrows.”
Mary Cheney, also of Warner Robins, has been shopping at the Robins commissary since 1962. She also will not miss the steps and access ramps.
“I have a friend who said she would miss the steps,” Cheney noted, “and I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ She likes to exercise, but with my bad knees I won’t miss the steps.”
Retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Rick Pratt said the new facility was a long time coming.
“The base deserves it,” he noted. “I’ve been shopping here since the 1980s, and I will miss nothing about the old commissary.”
Retired Marine Gunnery Sgt. Mark Grovy and his wife, Clarice, of Cochran, have been making a monthly trip to the Robins facility for decades. Pushing his shopping cart near the dairy area, Grovy said the new commissary looked good so far.
“But I haven’t been here very long,” he said over the gleeful din and music. “I can say that my cane doesn’t like ramps very much.”
Paula Lewis, the Robins store director, said she could breathe again now that the ribbon was cut.
“It’s going to be a great store,” she said. “It’s a lot bigger. Lot of major changes. It’s state-of-the-art. All the customers I’ve talked with this morning just say, ‘Great commissary.’ They’re excited, too.”
To contact Gene Rector, call 923-3109, extension 239.