People You Meet: The Motherway Family and Mr. Ds Food Center
“The reason we came back wasn’t, at first, a story of joy,” Michelle Motherway said of herself and her brother Joe and returning to work at the family grocery store. “What brought us back was that a company tried to kill our business.”
A national grocery chain has built its flagship store in Lander, Wyoming, a town of 7,555 people and home to Motherway’s business – Mr. Ds Food Center.
“We know this because the corporate bigwigs sat in our home office and told my mom to give up and sell to them,” Motherway said. “The company ran predatory pricing, a grand opening announcement, for 18 months until we returned it. Under trade regulations, opening pricing can only run for three months.”
Mr. D’s Food Center was started in 1946 in Thermopolis, Wyoming. Frank Dusl, Michelle and Joe’s grandfather, was a refrigerator salesman. Frank sold a refrigeration unit to the Thermopolis grocery store. Then Dusl bought it and expanded the business to include seven stores across Wyoming. He sold them all to Kroger, which became one of the top three grocery companies in America. Years ago, Kroger sold two of its Wyoming stores — in Lander and Riverton — to Dusl. He eventually sold the Riverton site to focus on the Lander store.
“So eight years ago our mom called us about predatory pricing,” Michelle recalls. “She said, ‘I’m done. If you want a piece of this inheritance, either you have to come now or I’ll sell out. Joey and I lived five houses apart in Fort Collins [Colorado]. I had just graduated from university. I moved to Lander to help out.
“I had two young kids in school,” Joe added. “I started driving about 40 hours a week to work here 40 hours a week. Finally, I bought a half share in a small plane to fly back and forth with the kids and the dog. The plane really needed flintstone legs [like the Flintstone car] to feed it. Sometimes I wondered if it would help to get out and push.
Statistics vary, but typically about 40% of American family businesses become second generation; about 13% transfer to a third generation; and three percent to a quarter according to Cornell University. Unexpectedly, the family behind Mr. D’s food center prevailed as an independent grocer against a store from each of the “big three” grocery companies – Albertsons/Safeway, Kroger/Smiths and Walmart – unless 30 miles in rural Fremont County which has four people per square mile (pop. 39,261) spread over an area the size of Vermont.
“I’ve worked in the store since I was a kid,” said Bonnie Motherway, Joe and Michelle’s mother. “My husband Joe and I bought Mr. D’s from my father in 1986. That was the year US Steel closed its iron ore mine here. There were over 500 jobs lost and around 4,000 people left Lander. My husband was a hard rock miner and we were also going to leave to find work. My father [Dusl] said, “I would like to retire. How about buying the store? So we bought a store in a town that seemed to be dying, worked hard and learned the trade.
According to American Express’ Small Business Economic Impact Study, of every dollar spent on a local business, $0.67 stays in that community. What does this actually mean? In 2019 alone, Wyoming residents shopping on Amazon.com displaced 240 retailers and 2,960 jobs in their own state, according to Civic Economics’ 2019 Prime Numbers: Amazon and American Communities study.
“It’s such a loss for a community to shop at a company store,” Joe said. “I know we want things instantly and cheaply. Still, I think we need to be aware of what our dollar buys us. It’s not just about buying the product. It also supports all the infrastructure behind this product.
Joe and Michelle experience these statistics firsthand. Joe’s first job in a store, at the age of five, was rolling pennies in a chewing-gum machine. Michelle’s first job at a store that brought her a paycheck—her grandfather Dusl paid her a dollar an hour—was packing donuts in the bakery at 3 a.m. When they returned to accept Mr. D’s legacy, they assumed responsibility for a company that provides 77 jobs in a small town.
“To support our local economy, we source our produce locally as much as possible,” Joe explained. “It circulates dollars within our ecosystem instead of sending them to a corporate entity out of state. We do this in concentric circles: we source our products first from Lander, then from Fremont County, then we expand to the state of Wyoming and into the western Rockies. We buy the product from small businesses, sometimes at the checkout.
In 2020, amid the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown of non-essential businesses, the Cowboy Creamery of Sheridan, Wyoming contacted Joe to ask if Mr. D’s could transport his ice cream products. The creamery was about to close and lay off its employees. Now, the creamery makes products to order for Monsieur D.
The pandemic has put a strain on Mr. D’s and customers. Joe and Michelle reacted quickly to the health crisis by organizing home delivery. Similar to many small towns, Lander does not have delivery service. The nearby business grocery retailer has not yet offered grocery delivery or curbside pickup.
“That’s what I love about this place,” Michelle said as she walked around the store. “We can help change people’s lives. We are one of the few companies that hire felons in Fremont County. The parole officer advises released inmates to cash their prison funds checks here at Mr. D’s and apply for employment. ”
“We’re in the people business,” Bonnie added, “We happen to sell groceries.”