Sisters Continue Upton Family Grocery Tradition
Monday, September 14, 2020
This is the third article in a feature on the Women Business Leaders of Upton
Sisters Buffy Helwig and Jaki Gustaf knew that running the family grocery would be hard work and dedication. But in January, when they bought Joe’s Food Center in Upton from their mother, little did they know what the next few months had in store for them.
“We were raised understanding that women know how to work hard,” said Helwig. “But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we had that comfort to fall back on that ‘girl power’ we had seen from our mother and other women in Upton.”
The sisters have kept the full service grocery store throughout the year and despite COVID-19, they are continuing the family tradition through the store's 40-year anniversary this past August. Their father, Joe Haynes, built Joe’s SuperValu in 1980, changing to Joe’s Food Center after adding a warehouse in 1992. After he passed away on Christmas Day, 1996, their mother, Carmen Diehl, took over the business and ran it as the sole owner until selling it to her daughters this past January.
Women of Upton
Gustaf and Helwig are part of a vibrant group of women active in Upton businesses. The list includes a police chief, bank president, mall owner, high school principal and many others, like their aunt, Lisa LeVasseur, who is the owner and editor of the Weston County Gazette. Gustaf said that may be attributable to a history of men working in the oil fields or coal mines, requiring the women to run the community.
“All the women here can relate to working hard and being active in the community, because we have grown up seeing other women do it,” said Gustaf.
And the sisters experienced that first hand at the family store with their mother.
“To see her strength, running the family store all those years even through the time Dad passed away, was amazing,” said Helwig. “She still pops in and offers help, saying all we have to do is call if we need anything, although I am pretty sure she is pretty happy not having to come in everyday.”
The store’s success over the years can be traced to the family’s dedication to personal service. The sisters are co-owners and active in the daily operations. Helwig has worked at the store since coming back from college 25 years ago and manages the merchandising and grocery products. Gustaf came back to the business five years ago, manages the daily operations and, both agree, is much better with their computer systems, one of the few aspects of the store that have changed over the years.
“Joe’s has been pretty much the same entity for 40 years,” said Helwig. “Other than expanding the office and adding the computer technology, not much has changed.”
As the only full grocery store in Upton, the emphasis on family ownership, involvement and service make it stand out. The full service deli with fresh-cut meats, run by their cousin, included a self-serve ‘Grab & Go’ warmer prior to the pandemic. Fresh produce and dairy products are daily mainstays. Many of the products, like hand-made pizzas with homemade dough, shredded cheese and sauce, are made from scratch. The store also focuses on customer convenience, with gas pumps and hunting and fishing licenses.
“Few still put that attention into serving their customers,” said Helwig. “We are proud to broast our own chicken and fry the doughnuts every morning.”
The COVID-19 crisi brought unseen changes to the store. As an essential business, it stayed open, with employees focusing on frequent sanitization, social distancing and wearing masks.
The early days of the pandemic brought some surprising changes, said Helwig.
“People used to be on the move a lot more, perhaps shopping in Gillette or other towns,” she said. “But as the crisis went on, we gained more customers, who said they had not stopped in the past because they assumed we did not have what they needed.”
The initial months brought a rush of more customers, stopping in more frequently and purchasing in greater quantities. The sisters had a difficult time keeping staples like sugar, flour, yeast, rice and toilet paper in stock, as customers turned to baking more than in the past.
“We would go home exhausted, trying to keep shelves filled to meet that new demand,” said Helwig. “Most days, I would walk 8 or 9 miles in the store itself.”
Optimistic of Future
While sales have definitely lessened from that rush, the sisters are optimistic that business will stay strong, as evidenced by what they called a bright side to the crisis.
“We have had much more interaction and insight into neighbors and people we had not had the time to see,” said Gustaf. “Upton really displayed it’s small town atmosphere where everyone helps each other, especially during a crisis.”
The COVID-19 crisis has given everyone a chance to reflect, said Helwig.
“People are so driven by a wide range of distractions, that they often don’t have a chance to appreciate what is right in front of them,” she said. “My hope is we can all understand more that if you don't support your own community, you may not like what you’re left with.”