Workmen's Market hits 90-year mark, still going strong
It was 90 years ago when John Giacoletto - "Grandpa John" - partnered with John Tasker, a fellow coal miner, to open a grocery store in Helper. They called it Workmen's Market. It has been in the Giacoletto family ever since, becoming one of the oldest businesses in Carbon County.
Steve Giacoletto, John's grandson, talks about the history and evolution of the operation that has survived to become a town landmark.
"They decided to leave the mines to find a better life. That was the way it was. People wanted a safer life when they had a few dollars in their hands," Steve explains. The partners opened the original store on Main Street where Ron's Meats is now. It was on the main highway at the time, the major stopping point going into or out of Price Canyon.
Steve remembers a half dozen grocery stores operating in Helper in the old days. But those were the times when Helper was the hub of commerce for all the old towns of Spring Canyon, Castle Gate, Kenilworth, and Spring Glen. There are two surviving groceries today, Workmen's and R&A Market.
Tasker, for reasons of his own, decided to sell out his share of the business and return to the mines. It could be the lure of money to be made in the mines. Grandpa John had been knocking down $75 a month at the Sego Mine near Green River. Grandpa bought out Tasker's share for $1,000. It took three years to pay off that sum.
Workmen's sold groceries, but the store also sold anything else people would buy. Shoppers could get hay and feed there, and coal. "They once bought a whole 30-ton carload of lump coal, paying $25 or $30 for the lot," John says. The deal was even better than that. They got a $10 rebate later.
The family sold a lot of the groceries fresh. They had a 15 acre farm in Gordon Creek and a 20-acre orchard in Helper. They had a dairy, 2,000 chickens, a slaughterhouse, feed yard and fruit trees. Steve remembers spending Sunday nights washing and bagging potatoes. Compared to farm and store work, "school was a vacation."
Way back when, grocers extended credit to customers. Having come from the mines himself, John understood the ups and downs of the industries. The local radio station used to broadcast mine reports twice a day, letting miners know which mines were working and which would be idle.
There was a basic honor system about credit. "If people owed, they paid you. Today, they won't even make up for a bad check," Steve says. Once Mary, his grandmother, received an envelope with no return address. Inside were five 100-dollar bills with an unsigned note saying, "I owe you this."
If people could not find work, especially during the Depression, they could work off their debt in the store or at the farm. His grandparents had a maid. It wasn't a sign of great wealth, but of compassion. During the Depression, jobless people would work for room and board and $1 a day. Grandpa died fairly young of a coronary thrombosis. That left Grandma Mary as the "Supreme Allied Commander," Steve quips. Just about all the progeny of John and Mary have worked in the store at one time or another. Grocery work is good practice in reading, writing and arithmetic and it is experience that has landed more than one Giacoletto kid a job while in school or college.
It has other challenges, too. Once when Grandma was carrying a sackload of cash to deposit in the bank, a strong gust of wind grabbed the sack and scattered bills up and down Bryner Street. Steve spent the whole afternoon and evening picking up money off lawns, driveways and yards. He thinks he got most of it.
Grandma died in 1980. She willed the store and orchard to Steve and his four siblings. He bought out their interest. In 1983, he decided to build a new store of his own and in 1984 the doors opened at the current location. The store sits on what was once the orchard purchased by his great-grandfather more than 100 years ago.
So what has changed in the grocery biz over the past 90 years?
Aside from the disappearance of customer credit, technology comes to mind.
When the store started they used ice blocks for refrigeration. Later they got an ammonia compressor that did the job better. Now refrigeration is even better, but the refrigerant is terrifyingly expensive, Steve says. An accident that causes a loss of refrigerant will cost many thousands of dollars.
Computer have also changed the way of doing business. He recalls the days of filling out order forms for groceries and ordering from a salesman. Trucks would arrive separately, one carrying meats, another vegetables, for example. Now the orders arrive on pallets in an integrated truck.
Scanning by laser bar code is probably the biggest change, though. While it has speeded checkout, it has shifted the workload to the back office. Somebody has to key in the prices for everything so the scanner and computer will work.
Grandma also left another little something behind. Family legend had it that she had buried a bunch of silver coins somewhere for safe keeping just in case paper money lost its value. Giacoletto was expanding rooms in the basement of what had been her old home. That required some excavation. The digging uncovered two five gallon buckets of silver.