Brownwood’s Kroger store closed its doors for the last time at 9:30 a.m. Friday as the store’s last customer checked out, leaving behind a largely empty store and a 40-year history that won’t soon be forgotten.

       Even in closing, the 61-employee store at 302 N. Main made a final contribution to the community, donating its remaining groceries and produce to Good Samaritan Ministries.

       “It’s heartbreaking,” longtime employee Margaret Gressett, who worked as the store’s operations assistant manager, said in the parking lot. Gressett spoke after a Sign and Crane Service crew had lowered the giant Kroger cubed sign from its perch atop a pole to the ground.

       Gressett had worked at the Brownwood store since its 1978 opening after transferring from the Kroger in Lewisville. She said she is taking a job at the Brookshire’s grocery store.

       “I never thought this day would happen,” Gressett said. “It’s a very sad day. I bleed blue blood. … one heck of a ride.”

       “It’s been one heck of a ride,” repeated Debbie Stembridge, who worked as the store’s grocery manager. Stembridge said she is transferring to a Kroger in Arlington.

       Kroger corporate officials announced in early January that the Brownwood store would be closing in early March. The company tried to increase sales, profitability and store conditions, but “despite our best efforts, we were not successful,” Kroger corporate officials said via email.

       “Since 1978, the Kroger Brownwood store has served thousands of families in the community. We have made the very difficult decision to close the store …  It is important to note, our team spends several weeks and months assessing all alternatives before closing a store.

       “We never want to close any store; however, we cannot continue to operate stores that do not perform to company expectations for profitability.”

       The company offered store employees severance, Kroger said.

       Outside the store Friday morning after the store’s closing, employees were mostly upbeat as they took photos of each other standing next to the cubed Kroger sign on the ground.

       Store manager Jason McLaughlin said employees were doing better Friday than they were a couple of months ago, when Kroger announced the closing. Employees have processed the news, dealt with their sadness and made plans to move on, McLaughlin said — although McLaughlin doesn’t yet know what he’s going to do. McLaughlin had said earlier the store would close March 6.

       “I am appreciative of the 40 years that our customers have been part of our lives,” McLaughlin said. “I’d like to thank all of these guys and our associates. This is one of the stores that has the most loyal shoppers in our division, and it’s because of our associates.

       “It’s been an emotional time for all of us as well as all of our customers.”

       Closing day, McLaughlin said, was “kind of a time of being finished. … it’s a lot easier than where we were two months ago.”

       McLaughlin said he will take some time off and then look for another job in this area.

       McLaughlin, a Blanket native, remembers coming to the store with his mom when he was 8, and he began working there as a bagger in 1985 at age 16. He left for college, returned to Kroger, then left for an Albertson’s store. After about a year in Kerrville, McLaughlin returned once again to the Kroger store in Brownwood.

       “This is my third time at Kroger,” McLaughlin said. “It’s just home. The store is home.”

       While the announcement of the store’s closing stunned and saddened employees, they chose to stay proactive with the community. Employees decided they would participate one final time in the Souper Bowl of Caring campaign, a national initiative that encourages communities to help those in need in the days and weeks before the Super Bowl. Brownwood’s Kroger location had been participating for years, donating the groceries paid for by Kroger customers to Good Samaritan Ministries.

       Employees were determined to “go out with a splash,” McLaughlin said as the campaign began in mid-January.

       “It is an extremely sad time for our 61 associates, and for this community,” McLaughlin said then. “When the news came that our store would be losing, our whole team was unsure about the Souper Bowl of Caring campaign and how we could possibly perform as well as we have in the past.

       “After a few days had gone by, our associates came together and decided that our Souper Bowl of Caring event was the perfect way to show our gratitude to our community, have some fun and spendK a little more time with the people who mean so much to us: our loyal shoppers, and each other.”

       Kroger was able to donate $6,800 worth of groceries to Good Samaritan thanks to the campaign, McLaughlin said.

       Standing outside the store where she worked since its opening, Gressett said the first week after Kroger announced the store’s closing “was a shock. A few weeks ago, it was reality. I’m relieved that it’s over now. I’m relieved we can get on with the next phase of our life. This was hard.”

       Customers, Gressett said, ‘would come in and they would cry with us, and we would cry with them.”

       “We’re ready to get on with our new lives — our new chapter,” said Stembridge, the store’s grocer manager.

       McLaughlin said employees will gather at another location soon so they can spend one last time together.