August marks the 40-year anniversary of Pine River's iconic Family Market grocery store, at least in its current location.
The building on Highway 371 was completed and in operation in August 1977, but in truth, the business' history goes back to 1968 with a two- to three-aisle IGA grocery store located in the current Hidden Jewels location on Barclay Avenue. It was there that Howard Blanchard, who manages the Family Market's meat counter, got his start as a student in ninth grade.
"In 1973, I was running around up town on Main Street for the homecoming parade," Blanchard said. "For some reason we ended up in the grocery store that was on Main Street near the bakery. They asked if I wanted a job. I went to work that afternoon and didn't go back to school that day. That's how I landed up there. I got hired basically to make Wonder Roast rotisserie chicken. It was new and on the scene. I got hired to make those."
Blanchard was hired by the first proprietor, John Bueckers, who had purchased the business with his wife, Marilyn, from Ken and Doris Schuster, according to the "Logsleds to Snowmobiles" boo. Bueckers and his father, Phil Bueckers, worked primarily out of the small meat counter, because that was their background.
"He was a meat cutter from Pequot Lakes when he moved here," Blanchard said.
It wasn't long before the business grew too large for its first location. Across the road was a Red Owl Store, so Bueckers released their IGA franchise and bought the Red Owl from Derrick and Marvel Goddard in 1972. Iron Hills North is now in that location.
"With the Red Owl we over doubled that size," Blanchard said.
The new site included more cold storage, including opening a full meat department, where Blanchard continued to work. In 1977, the store again outgrew its building. On top of that, the store was no longer along the city's main thoroughfare. Buecker's son, John Bueckers Jr. (now store manager), was 5 at the time.
"When the highway was moved out to here and traffic patterns changed, I know when he initially moved to the highway it was considered a risk," Bueckers Jr. said. "The community thought it wasn't going to make it because businesses were downtown. It was the best move to be made in the long run. It was the best for the business."
The 1977 location is the same building to house today's Family Market, but Bueckers Sr. chose to turn the store into a SuperValu when he relocated to the highway, to the site of an abandoned gas station.
Bueckers Jr. said SuperValu was a more viable company at the time, and the change likely contributed to the store's survival in the long run.
The new building doubled in size yet again, making space for a bigger meat counter, more space for produce, more coolers and many other new features.
The new store wasn't finished. It went through several more updates before becoming the shape it is today. In 1992, a $200,000 upgrade resulted in construction of a combined bakery and deli, according to a May 7, 1992, story in the Pine River Journal. The store didn't start selling gasoline until 1997, when the pumps and service counter were added.
"I left for seven years and came back in 1997, when he did the expansion to this side. The front entrance used to be where the gas counter is," Bueckers Jr. said. "In 1997, he added the gas to the store and changed the front of the store and expanded the business."
"He flip-flopped the store," said Karen Wales, who has worked with the store since October 1977. "We didn't close a day during the whole thing. There were big sheets hung up so they could cut a trench across the whole length of the store with jackhammers. We had them going all day long."
Four years later, after several successful strategic changes that kept the business growing, Bueckers Sr. decided to get out of the grocery business. He sold the store to Jerry Sauvageau, who changed the name from Beuckers SuperValu to Jerry's SuperValu. Sauvageau proved to be as strategic as the former owner.
"I think he was around for about 10 years," Blanchard said. "During that time it was continuous, steady growth. Each year went by and we either kept up or moved ahead."
Though the store had seen almost constant growth, it had faced constant competition from discount retailers in Brainerd and Baxter, as well as Carl's Market on Barclay Avenue. Carl's was started by John and Zella Kater in 1926 as Kater's Market. It became Carl's in 1944, when Carl Nies purchased it. In 1972, when Bueckers Sr. gave up his IGA franchise, Carl's became an IGA affiliate. The store was the nearest competition for 10 miles.
"The town can't support two grocery stores," Bueckers Jr. said, talking about a buyout and merger. "The previous owner approached them. They were willing to do that."
Jerry's incorporated nearly all of the Carl's employees following the buyout, and Jerry's became Pine River's only full grocery store.
There was a new change in store in 2012, when Chuck Welte and his wife, Lynn Welte (formerly Bueckers), decided to find a home in Minnesota. When they heard that Sauvageau was considering selling the grocery store, they decided to get the store back into the family.
They renamed the company Family Market, and became a SpartanNash-affiliated grocer. The Weltes have owned the store ever since, and Chuck, who once worked in computer networking, has been upgrading the store's technology ever since, which is more convenient for customers, but has its drawbacks.
"You used to know the price of everything in the store," Wales said. "You had to know the ad front to back. You just studied the ads. Back then my memory was better and you just learned it. We started out with one of the old crank tills. When the electricity went out you could crank it and still keep going. Then we had to figure out the change. Now they brought in ones that tell you the change and if the power goes out you are done."
Wales and Blanchard say a lot has changed in the store. Bueckers Sr. was old school, but laid back. Sauvageau was also laid back, but driven toward growth. Welte, they say, has been bringing the store into current technology.
In addition, promotions have changed over the years. The first owners held many different in-store promotions, including many that required employees to dress like cowboys, train engineers or in other costumes. Under the Weltes, the business has expanded to outdoor promotions that include huge meat sales, produce sales, rib fest and free lunch promotions. Surviving in the grocery world is all about strategy and facing the competition.
"The biggest challenge is competition," Blanchard said. "Pine River has changed drastically. Brainerd has changed drastically."
In spite of growing competition, Family Market still has room for growth and change. To that effect, there are updates on the horizon.
"We need to upgrade some of our infrastructure," Welte said. "Some of our coolers and freezers. Our dairy cooler is an open one right now, but if we can move to one with everything behind the doors, our cheeses, cottage cheeses, cultured stuff and butter, if we can get that behind doors it will help product life, temperature maintenance and reduce electricity and carbon footprint. It would be better for the environment, better for the store and products. We'd be able to fit more product in."
The store may also get a remodel designed by SpartanNash, though that may be further down the line. Over all, the grocery store has survived over 40 years through successful strategy, and Weltes intend to stay around the same way.
Pine River Family Market is hosting a six-week celebration starting this month to mark 40 years in its current location. The celebration will culminate in September, marking the five-year anniversary of the Weltes' purchase of the business.