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Ma and Pa Grocery Stores Still Surviving

Sun Advocate community editor

Iona and Steve Giacoletto own and operate Workmens Market in Helper.

Guido Rachiele looks just a little lonely as he sits among a group of chairs that line the one side of his grocery store, behind his checkout counter.

"These chairs used to be full of people who came here to sit and talk at all times of the day," he says. "Now many of those who used to come in here have died. I still get a few, even a group sometimes, but not near as often."

Rachiele's store, Checkerboard Grocery is one of only four small "Ma and Pa" grocery stores that still exist in Carbon County, and the only one left in Price.

"There used to be over 20 grocery stores during the 1950's in Price," he explains as he looks toward a customer coming in the door. "And there were 12 more in Helper."

Today Helper has two, Workmen's Market and R&A Market, at nearly opposite ends of town. And then there is the Miner's Trading Post in Sunnyside; the last of the four small establishments that are left in the county.

The disappearance of the small, family owned grocery store on every corner is a national occurance. In some big cities they still exist in vast numbers, but many have long since been turned into video or liquor stores. The demise began when the large chain supermarkets began to evolve in the late 1940's. Before that the only chains included small stores which had quaint names like A&P, Piggley Wiggley, AG and one with a more Utah connection, O.P. Skaggs. Then came a nationwide chain called Safeway, and things really began to change. Following it the market exploded as names like Lucky, Krogers, Albertsons, Smiths, Von's, Ralphs and others began to move into regional markets across the country. Some of those chains are now national. Finally in the last 10 years Walmart Supercenters have proliferated, adding another large competitor to many markets, including Carbon County.

Rachiele began his grocery career at the Broadbent Market in Helper when he was 12. That store has long since disappeared.

"The problem is learning to change with the times," says Rachiele. "To stay in business I have had to change from year to year. What I carry now is a lot different from what I carried when I and Joe Santi bought the store in 1947. Then we had a lot of older immigrants who did a lot of their own cooking and particularly baking. We also carried a lot of imported foods they wanted. Now I carry more convenience items. As generations have changed, so have the buying habits."

At Workmen's Market, Steve Giacoletto, whose grandfather and grandmother started the store in 1923 up the street from the present building, feels survival is a matter of quality and working for the customers dollar.

"How we have survived all the bigger competition is a good question," he said seated in his office just behind the double swinging doors that are typical in small markets. "We have found ourselves working harder with less help and being open long hours, so things are convenient for our customers. We're only closed three days a year and we have tried to keep our prices fair and provide good quality meat."

At one time many of the goods the store sold were produced right on property owned by the family. In 1934 they had 5000 chickens, 1800 fruit trees, a milk house and a slaughter house that supplied the store with much of what was sold.

"Actually," as he added a note to his previous statement,"The hours we operate today are not as long as they used to be. There was a time when we didn't even close for Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter."

Richard Columbo of R&A Market cuts some rib eye steaks while he takes an order on the phone at the same time.

Giacoletto's store employs eight people, some of them family. But he feels like his customers are part of his family too.

"Unless they come off the highway, we know all our customers by their first name, and often their last name too," he explains as he looks over an advertisement for the stores wares in the 1930's. "I think honesty and trust is part of the formula for staying in business in a market where the pieces cut from the pie get smaller all the time."

Of all the small stores open in the area R&A Market is the newest, only 34 years young.

"My uncle Armand Saccomanno and I opened this store on April 1, 1970 and we ran it together until 1982 when he passed away," said Richard Columbo as he custom cut rib eye steaks for a corporate customer. "We both worked at Food Center (another market that is now closed in Helper) before we opened this place."

Columbo's market sits at the end of Main Street well out of the sight of US 6 so traffic off the road for him is not a large part of his business. He depends on repeat customers of his meat business much like Giacoletto does at his store.

"Survive is the word," he says as he points to an order board that has slips with various cuts of meats requested by customers written on them. "Since the Super Walmart opened the grocery part of my business has really suffered. However the meat business and the small bakery we have keeps us very busy. We try to do any things a customer wants. I think the personal service is what keeps us in business."

The Miners Trading Post in Sunnyside, in many ways, is in a different position from the other three stores. While Checkerboard is surrounded by the big three markets in town, and those same large chain stores are just down the road from Workmen's and R&A, Jim Leonard's store is well over 20 miles away from the closest of giants. In the East Carbon-Columbia- Sunny side area he has the only show in town, except for a few convenience items the two gas stations in the area sell.

"We are a big store in a small town," he says of his multiple aisles of food and more. Because of his position in the town he stocks many other items besides groceries, including hardware. "There are a lot of interesting things in this store. We try to provide as much as we can to the local community."

Jim Leonard, of the Miners Trading Post, speaks with vendor Ryan Hicks in the store during a delivery.

The store, which employs 14 people, lies in the only surviving shopping center in eastern Carbon County. On one side of the store is a post office and on the other a credit union and a small bowling alley.

Still Leonard knows that business is going to the big stores in Price as well. A lot of people in the area work in the county seat and stop at stores there to pick up items on the way home. But it would be very hard to imagine Sunnyside without the Trading Post. Still profitability is always in question, with competition the way it is.

The store began operation as a Wasatch Store in the early days of Sunnyside, a company owned merchantile. In the 1940's Price Trading Company bought the store and then they sold it to Leonard and his parents in 1977. Leonard's 84 year old father still works in the market.

Leonard also suggested a similar theme as to why his business survives to what other small stores in the county voiced.

"We know everyone in town, by their names," he says.

The mention of names also brings up another point. How did each of the markets get their monickers? For the Miners Trading Post the way it was named is obvious. But what about Checkerboard Market?

"The store was built in 1945 and was originally owned by the Price Commission Company, a feed store next door that sold Checkerboard Brand feed," says Rachiele. "They just named the grocery store after the feed and when we bought it we kept the name."

Giacoletto says his stores name story was related to him by his grandma.

"She said it just took a lot of work to get it going so that's what they named it," he laughs.

Guido Rachiele in his store.

R&A Market's label came from the first initials of the owners names Richard and Armand.

The bottom line is that these stores have survived an onslaught of strong competition over the years, probably the because the owners care so much about what they do.

"I love the people who come in here," says Columbo after one woman customer related a joke she had heard to him as he helped her at the meat counter. "It's a very good business."

Giacoletto finds his work rewarding although he is involved in many other things as well.

"Personally I think our employees are the best thing about our store and it's good working here, along with them and the public," he explained as he ran off to help a customer.

Leonard has a hard time imagining doing anything else, his roots are so tied to the store.

"A lot of teenagers have worked their way through high school and beyond in this store," he says with a smile on his face. "We try very hard to be a friendly place to shop."

Rachiele enjoys the people and his years serving them. It is also obvious he particularly likes the kids, as he helped a little girl at his check out counter with a sack of penny candy.

"I have a regular clientelle from this part of town," he stated as he showed off his 70 year old penny gum ball machine and an operating Coke cooler that he has owned since he bought the store. "I have watched three generations of customers families pass through this place since I bought it. Many of them are still customers."

One wonders if anyone at any of the chain stores will be able to say that 57 years from now.

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