An end of an era
Workmen's Market changes hands, now Pick and Rail Market
A family business is a special kind of endeavor. It is to say the least usually a lot of work. But it is endearing and often, when run by generation after generation endearing,
Such is the case with Workmen's Market in Helper. It has been around since 1922 and the Giacoletto family has owned it ever since.
It was 92 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 is one of the oldest businesses in Carbon County, yet this week, while the store will remain, it has changed hands. For the first time since the startup it will not be headed up by someone with the last name of Giacoletto.
It will soon have a new sign proclaiming it the Pick and Rail Market. And it is owned by Todd Muse, who grew up in Carbon County and now owns two small markets in southwestern Utah.
But for now the Workmen's sign on the building still holds its place. That name, Workmen's is unusual. One has to ask where it came from.
"I asked my grandmother that once," said Steve Giacolleto as he sat on a stool in the store office as he handled details about the operation of the store with various people who came in. "She said that we worked hard at the market and that it was a market for working people."
The market has a great history, and while the building it is located in now is only 30 years old, the market is well known to everyone who has traveled Highway 6. It stands out as soon as one comes out of the canyon.
Giacoletto, who was the original owners grandson, talked about the evolution of the market not only on Tuesday afternoon, but also a couple of years ago when the Sun Advocate wrote a story about the establishments 90th year. He told about his grandparents and parents.
"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," he explained. "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, as well as 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 had 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.
Steve said that his grandparents meant so much to him. After his mom died when he was six years old he and his siblings moved in with them.
"We grew up in the business," said Steve.
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 one of the biggest changes, 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.
However on Tuesday he noted what he said were the two biggest changes that affected his business.
The first was the changes in wholesalers. Originally they bought products from an outfit called Scocroft then later moved to Utah Wholesale which eventually became Fleming Foods. In 1963 the business became a part of Associated Foods.
"The difference with that really helped us," said Steve. "Utah Wholesale was not fair to the little grocer. They would buy a truckload of something and sell it to the guy who could come up with cash for the whole thing all at once and quickly. With Associated the small grocer could get a case of this and a case of that for the same price as the big guys."
The competition was stiff with so many stores in the area in the old days and then the chains started coming in. The first chains were Piggly Wiggley and Safeway. Then came Smiths and City Market (later Albertsons).
"The biggest change came when Walmart moved in," said Steve. "We had a fairly closed market even with the other chains until then."
The competitiveness in the market and the fact he had a new building to pay for from 1984 on complicated family life. Steve's wife, Iona has a lot of stories about how the retail business, open so many hours and even on holidays in the early years made it hard on the family.
"I didn't have a husband a lot on holidays," she said Tuesday. "Sometimes we would make dinner and bring it over and we would have it in the back room here in the store."
Once the building was paid off she said they were able to begin closing on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"There were many times when I never saw the kids awake," said Steve. "I would leave in the morning and they were asleep and would come home at night and they would be asleep again."
Iona said running a grocery store did have its perks too though.
"One time we had a broken pipe in our house and had no water so I brought the kids over and gave them a bath in the butcher shop," she said with a smile.
Steve said things were really lean in the beginning. An accident in the Red Narrows destroyed their car just after the new building was built and it was their only vehicle.
"I bought a very old rusted out car for the family to use," he said. "We downsized everything else to pay for this building. We sold our cows on the farm, the vehicles, and just about everything to make it work."
Iona added "You ought to have seen that car."
Steve said there have been a lot of tough times, but the sweet moments have outweighed any of that.
"We are tied to a rollercoaster here," he said. "The ups and downs of the coal business, an economy that goes up and down and people who move in and out. But it has been wonderful. I love the people and have loved working with them.
Many businesses seem to have someone looking over them. Steve says that there are two rock men that have been looking after him all these years. One is to the southeast and the other is toward the north. He says the one smiles at him and sometimes the other seems to stick its tongue out at him.
"Look," he said as he pointed them out from the parking lot in front of the store. "They have faces. We had a contest on drawing those about 20 years ago. We have had the faces of that one (the east one) on our charge slips for years. We even had t-shirts made with that face on it."
Steve and Iona say they are going to work on the farm and also do some traveling. Most of all they will enjoy their grandkids. In fact one little one told Steve when he took him out for ice cream last week that he should keep the store.
"You just need to take a break, grandpa," said the three year old.
And a break they will take.
And so it goes...the passing of a business on to new ownership and new possibilities.