Michelle, Bonnie and Joe Motherway stand in the frozen food aisle of their Mr D's Food Center. (Photo by Melissa Hemken)

“Why we came back is not, at first, a story of joy,” said Michelle Motherway about her and her brother Joe’s return to work in the family’s grocery store. “What brought us back is that a corporation tried to kill our business.” 

A nationwide grocery chain built its flagship store in Lander, Wyoming, a town of 7,555, and home to Motherway’s business – Mr. D’s 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 corporation ran predatory pricing, a grand opening ad, for 18 months until we turned them in. Per business regulation, grand opening prices can only run for three months.”

Mr. D’s Food Center began in 1946 in Thermopolis, Wyoming. Frank Dusl — Michelle’s and Joe’s grandfather — was a refrigerator salesman. Frank sold a refrigeration unit to the Thermopolis grocery store. Then, Dusl purchased it and expanded the business to include seven stores across Wyoming. He sold them all to Kroger, which has grown to be one of the top three largest grocery corporations in America. Years ago, Kroger sold two of its Wyoming stores — in Lander and Riverton — back to Dusl. He eventually sold the Riverton location to concentrate on the Lander store.

“So, eight years ago, our mom called us about the predatory pricing,” Michelle recalled. “She said, ‘I’m done. If you want part of this legacy, you either need to come now or I’m selling out.’ Joey and I lived five houses apart in Fort Collins [Colorado]. I had just graduated from college. I moved home to Lander to help.”

“I had two young kids in school,” Joe added. “I began driving about 40 hours a week to work here 40 hours a week. Finally, I bought half a share in a small airplane to fly back and forth with the kids and the dog. The plane really needed Flintstone legs [like the Flintstone car] to power it. Sometimes I wondered if it would help to get out and push.”

Statistics vary, yet commonly about 40% of U.S. family businesses become second generation; approximately 13% transfer to a third generation; and three percent to a fourth according to Cornell University. Against those odds, the family behind Mr. D’s Food Center has prevailed as an independent grocer against a store from each of the “big three” grocery corporations — Albertsons/Safeway, Kroger/Smiths, and Walmart — within 30 miles in rural Fremont County that has four people per square mile (pop. 39,261) spread across an area the size of Vermont. 

“I’ve worked in the store since I was a kid,” said Bonnie Motherway, Joe’s and Michelle’s mother. “My husband Joe and I bought Mr. D’s from my dad in 1986. It was the year that U.S. Steel closed its iron ore mine here. There were over 500 jobs lost and about 4,000 people left Lander. My husband was a hard rock miner, and we were going to leave to find work as well. My dad [Dusl] said, ‘I’d like to retire. How about you buy the store?’ So we bought a store in a town that appeared to be dying, worked hard, and learned the business.”

Michelle, Bonnie and Joe Motherway stand in front of their Mr. D’s Food Center. (Photo by Melissa Hemken)

Of every dollar spent at a locally owned business, $0.67 stays in that community according to the American Express Small Business Economic Impact Study. What does that actually mean? In 2019 alone, Wyomingites 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 is such a loss to a community to shop at a corporate store,” Joe said. “I know we want things instantly and cheap. Yet, I think we need to be aware of what our dollar buys us. It’s not just buying the product. It also supports the whole infrastructure behind that product.”

Joe and Michelle experience these statistics firsthand. Joe’s first store job, at the age of five, was to roll pennies from the gumball machine. Michelle’s first store job that garnered a paycheck — her Grandpa Dusl paid her a dollar an hour — was to wrap donuts in the bakery at 3 o’clock in the morning. When they returned to accept Mr. D’s legacy, they assumed responsibility of a business that provides 77 jobs in a small town. 

“To support our local economy, we locally source our products as much as possible,” Joe explained. “This circulates dollars within our ecosystem instead of sending them to an out-of-state corporate entity. We do this with concentric circles: we source product from Lander first, then Fremont County, expand to the state of Wyoming, and onto the Rocky Mountain West. We buy the product from small businesses, sometimes by the case.”

In 2020, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic closure of non-essential businesses, the Cowboy Creamery of Sheridan, Wyoming contacted Joe to ask if Mr. D’s could carry its ice cream products. The creamery was on the brink of closing and laying off their employees. Now, the creamery makes products for Mr. D’s to order. 

The pandemic stressed Mr. D’s and customers alike. Joe and Michelle responded quickly to the health crisis by organizing home delivery. Similar to many small towns, Lander doesn’t have the service of delivery gig workers. The neighboring corporate grocery retailer has yet to offer grocery delivery or curbside pick-up. 

“That’s what I love about this place,” Michelle said as she gestured around the store. “We can help change people’s lives. We’re one of the few businesses that hire felons in Fremont County. The parole officer advises released inmates to cash their jail fund checks here at Mr. D’s and ask for job applications. ”

“We’re in the people business,” Bonnie added, “We just happen to sell groceries.”

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