“When I was a child, I had a Catholic school chum, whose dad owned the local funeral home. We would always walk to Owl Fine Foods, when I would stay the night with her in the Garden District. She would tell me to choose any ice cream or popsicle I wanted. At the register, she’d say, “Charge it to my dad’s account.” Wow! I felt like royalty there!” – Cher Couvillion Wilson
Many Alexandria residents remember the Owl Fine Food Grocery located at 1121 Chester St. Residents remember running to the store after school to put candy on their parents’ account, parents sending their children to buy groceries, and the welcoming Mertens family that ran it. The story of the Mertens is one of a family-owned business making a huge impact in the heart of Alexandria.
“Owl Grocery was the only place I could use a credit card to purchase groceries. We did our big shopping at the England AF Base commissary, but when cash was tight and we needed a few things, we could shop at Owl’s. Now, of course, every store takes credit cards so it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but back then it was.” – Terri Febuary
Owl Fine Food Grocery was originally owned and operated by Jesse Joseph “Jay” Mertens.
One of seven children belonging to Belgian immigrants Henry Mertens and Mary Catherine Verheyden, Jay began his life on the Cooper Plantation, where his father was a farmer. He later moved to Alexandria and married Bonnie Belle Welch.
After the store opened in 1931, Jay later bore a son named Jack Jay Mertens on April 3, 1938. On December 27, 1943, he enlisted in the US Navy to fight in World War II and served until December 20, 1945. After serving, he came home to Bonnie and continued to run his grocery store until his retirement in 1976, when his son took over.
“1) The only place that I could find, other than the City Park Pool, that sold Zero candy bars. 2) The floors were very cool in the summer and felt soooo good on bare feet. 3) Owl Grocery delivered. 4) Owl sold Mad Magazine & lots of comic books.” – Bradley Smith
Jack Mertens continued his father’s name and legacy as a Garden District community member. He attended Bolton High School from 1951 – 1956, where he participated in groups such as the school choir from eighth grade through his senior year. He was also a member of the Distributive Education group, which combined academia with vocational training to provide juniors and seniors an opportunity to gain training and working experience at an early age.
He met his future wife, Winnifred Watkins, in high school, and they continued their education at Louisiana Polytechnic Institute (now Louisiana Tech University) in Ruston. He studied at the School of Business Administration in business management and joined the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, while she studied at the School of Home Economics in institutional management and joined the Alpha Chi Omega sorority. He later served in the Louisiana Air National Guard, and later the Air Force. He married his wife on March 10, 1960.
“Really my biggest memory was riding my bike from Marye St to the Owl whenever my Mama needed something in a pinch. It was always so perfect- in the neighborhood, had a little bit of everything & you ran into everyone there.” – Sarah Kramer
Jack became the assistant manger of Owl Fine Foods in 1962. He later became the president, where he ran the store until its closure between 1990 and 1991. It later became the Heritage Arts and Crafts center and eventually became the Abundant Faith Ministry, with the building remaining under the ownership of the Mertens.
“As a kid in the Garden District, I spent summers practically barefoot the entire time riding bikes and getting into trouble with the other neighborhood kids. One of my favorite treats was summer tomatoes. I used to go into the Owl and buy them one by one and eat them like apples with a shaker of seasoned salt. I can’t believe they’d let me in that store barefoot, but they never complained! If I was feeling particularly wealthy, I’d buy an orange push pop or two. It was the highlight of summer to be independent with my chores money, and to roam as I wanted.” – Wallace Levy McKeel
The testimony doesn’t lie; Owl’s was not just a grocery store. It was a social place for neighbors to catch up with each other. It was a place where kids could feel exceptional – flourishing in their innocence while also learning to spread their wings, feeling grown by charging popsicles to their parents’ account but buying snacks all the same. The Mertens were laid back and friendly, focusing on customer service and satisfaction rather than worrying about if shoes were on their feet. It allowed families to use credit cards so they could get by when things got a little harder than they’d planned or emergencies came up. Owl’s Fine Foods Grocery was an icon of Americana, a snapshot of the close-knit communities we all love and aspire to maintain or revive. We hope that someday soon, someone will step up to carry on that feeling and the Mertens’ legacy with honor.
“I remember going to Owls Grocery store after school to get candy. I also remember mom asking me if I would run over to Owls quickly to get small, last minute things. It represents something safe and familiar to me. It belongs in the neighborhood. If you tear it down you are tearing down yet another thing that reminds us of community, family, and security. I live in Prague, Czech Republic now but my parents and brother still live in the neighborhood. My brother lives literally just around the corner. I promise that if you reopen Owls, if you give a Owls a fighting chance, you won’t regret it. Let’s bring back the days when life was simpler and people stayed close to one another.” – Ann-Aldridge Brewer
Editor’s Note: Since Amanda Scull and Heather Matlock researched and wrote this article, some things have changed. The building has been sold to Garden District resident, John Callis, and will soon undergo restoration and adaptation to it’s new role as a fine dining restaurant in the evenings. They will also have a “grab and go” lunch items as well as “take and bake” dinners. See http://www.owlfinefoods.com for more info and follow them on Facebook. Also, just today 9-21-18 The Town Talk’s Jeff Matthews interviewed me and the new owner. You can read it here: