George B. Cartledge, Sr.

George B. Cartledge, Sr., born in Georgia in 1910. Mr. Cartledge got his start in the furniture industry as a salesman in Atlanta in 1931. In 1937, he and two partners established Southeast Wholesale Furniture in Atlanta and expanded to Roanoke in 1945 with their acquisition of Grand Piano and Furniture Company. Throughout the growth of his company, Mr. Cartledge demanded perfect honesty and consideration for customers, offering a frosty Coke to everyone who walked in the store.

Grand began expanding outside of Roanoke in February 1951 when it opened a store in Radford, Virginia, followed later in the year with a store in Covington, Virginia. The fourth Grand store opened in Lynchburg, Virginia in September 1953. It was here that the tradition of serving Coke in the “little bottles” (holding 6.5 ounces) to customers was born as an opening day promotion. The swarm of people who gathered to visit the store was so great that the police were called in to provide control and the street was blocked off. By the end of the day, the Lynchburg store served 12,000 (some sources say 14,000) ice-cold Cokes. As Grand’s vice-president of advertising told Virginia Business in 1999, “Forty-six years ago it didn’t take much to move people’s meter.”

George Cartledge, Sr. was quick to recognize the potential of the soda giveaway, and soon free Cokes were being served at all the Grand stores on a daily basis. It became more than a gimmick, evolving into a key element of the chain’s success. Cartledge took it so seriously that he issued a memo that has become part of company lore on how to properly serve a bottle of Coke. He wrote in part: “Let me emphasize how important it is to give our Cokes with enthusiasm and a smile. … Salespeople and store managers too should watch the door and be ready with a Coke when the customers walk in.” It became a tradition with customers as well, as parents who cherished the memory of their first Coke at a Grand Piano store brought their own children to share the experience.

When Mr. Cartledge received the National Home Furnishings Association “1996 Retailer of the Year” award, which recognizes business leadership as well as industry and community service, it was stated, “His accomplishments as a businessman, father, citizen, industry and commerce leader serve as a role model and guide for all of us in the home furnishings industry.” He was the recipient of the Virginia Retailer of the Year and received honors from numerous civic organizations. He died in March of 1997 at the age of 87.

George B. Cartledge, Sr. was inducted into the Southwest Virginia Business Hall of Fame in 1991.

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