A small family-run business continues to thrive in downtown Arnaudville, Louisiana, the heart of Acadiana. Arnaudville, known by the locals as “La Jonction,” implies the confluence of Bayou Teche and Bayou Fuselier in the very center of a once thriving community built on cotton, sugar cane and sweet potatoes. The result is a town center served by two bridges providing a quick glimpse of a miniature island of sediment, the result of a Civil War shipwreck, built up in the center of the crosscurrents converging from both tributaries.
This family business is now supported by fifth-generation descendants of original owners, George Clifton Coles and his wife, Nora Castille Coles, and their two young children, Joseph Richard “J.R.” Coles and Wilda Mae “Sis” Coles Benoit. As many young families today, George and Nora moved from this area seeking work during the aftermath of the Great Depression. After a hard émigré in the oil fields of Arkansas, a relative informed George of an opportunity to purchase a modest dry goods store in Arnaudville. The bill of sale was completed for the grand sum of $3,600.00 in 1934. The 30 by 40 foot wooden structure was stocked with the remainder of the money which had been borrowed from George’s brother-in-law. Well into the first decade of the twenty-first century, Sis Coles Benoit recalled the opening day of the new family business.
“I was 15 years old and I remember it like it was yesterday. It was pitiful. Daddy and Mamma could barely afford to buy groceries after making the down payment. You looked around and all you saw were a few canned goods here and there. We sold sugar, rice and flour, which was weighed out by the pound. Crackers were counted out and sold by the piece. We made and sold bologna sandwiches. We lived in the back of the store. Mamma made rooms for us by sewing and hanging curtains to divide the space. She’d cook supper for us in the back of the store and when she had to she’d stop and serve customers at the same time. Daddy eventually started going to New Orleans and buying truckloads of furniture. I don’t know how they did it; but, they sold the few things they had and then bought a little more next time and started all over again.”
In 1950, George and Nora’s son, J.R., and his wife, Genevieve Willis Coles, bought the store from his parents. The small grocery grew, as did J. R. and Genevieve’s family. Their children were Cynthia, J. R., Jr. “Butch” and the youngest , Linda. J.R. changed the name of the store and it became known as: J. R. Coles Grocery. The building was remodeled and enlarged to a forty-foot by sixty-foot structure. J. R. Coles Grocers served the people of Arnaudville and the surrounding area for the next 38 years. Because of its location in the downtown area and the many years of family service, the market has become part of the heart of Arnaudville itself.
In 1978 J. R. retired and sold the grocery to his oldest daughter, Cynthia, and her husband, Russell Robin. No stranger to the grocery, both had worked for many years in the small store before purchasing it. With their children: Kevin, Melanie, George and Francis, beside them, they continued the expansion of the 44-year-old family business. The old wooden structure was torn down to accommodate a larger more modern structure and for off-street parking.
Russell had worked as a butcher in the small store for many years but he also worked in the large supermarket chain stores of Lafayette before returning to Arnaudville and purchasing the store. It is this old Cajun French, boucherie-style of meat cutting, seasoning and marinating that he mastered and incorporated into the family business. That change began the unprecedented growth of new markets to this day. Individual attention to every detail of preparation on a large scale delivers the quality products and services provided today.
In 1987, Melanie, who was working alongside her father at the time of his death, took over the responsibility and became the CEO and she expertly directed the store into the twenty-first century. At a time when the management of a supermarket of this size, and in this part of the state, was a totally male-dominated profession, Melanie helped pioneer a new era of women’s equality and professionalism, shattering previous stereotypes.
Around 2008, the youngest brother, Francis, joined in the daily operations of the business. In 2011, Kevin returned from New York brimming with ideas. He has taken over the catering, Russell’s Catering Services. He has also opened The Little BIG Cup and the Bayou Warehouse at The Little Big Cup to serve the restaurant needs of the community.
Russell’s Food Center still offers its Signature Dishes, Party Trays and Baskets. Meal Solutions and many creations by the Deli/Bakery Department.
We are blessed to have the fifth generation joining us at Russell’s Food Center. Melanie’s daughter, Magen Olivier Turner, has come aboard the staff. Together, with a support staff of highly talented and caring people, the family continues to focus on customer service and the desire to keep the friendly neighborhood feeling. It is not uncommon to walk in the store and hear people greeted by name and see and hear neighbors visiting down the aisles, some still speaking in their native Cajun French.
This family-owned and operated business in the heart of Acadiana has endured the events of time and remain committed to Acadiana and the people who call it home.