Bonnell siblings are taking time to “relax”
Dave’s County Market will be business as usual under new ownership, they say
TINA L. SCOTT
Rumors about Dave’s County Market being sold have run rampant recently. The Bonnell siblings in the business sat down with me to set the record straight.
Three of Dave and Rita Bonnell’s four children started working in the family grocery store business in their youth and never left, making it their career. Barb (Bonnell) Haffemann, the eldest of the four children; Jeff Bonnell, the youngest; and David Bonnell, named after his father, worked for the store when it was Dave’s Red Owl and transitioned with their father when the new Dave’s County Market store started in the former Pamida building in 1997. They then remodeled and expanded the store from 2007-2009.
“There’s four of us in the family, and we have a sister [Lisa (Bonnell) Handlin] who claims to be the sane one in the family,” Barb said. “She’s a teacher. And I would say, yes, no holidays, no weekends, and your summer’s off, you were the sane one in the family.”
Store to change hands
To clarify, yes, the grocery store is technically being sold and will officially change hands on July 29, 2021.
“Our last day will be July 29th,” Barb, Jeff, David, and their mother, Rita, told their employees in a farewell letter this week. “On July 30th at 5:00 a.m. the store will open as Dave’s County Market and will continue on as so.” [Employees were previously told the news in person. Barb said she would have liked to share the news with their employees all at once, in one large meeting, but there just wasn’t a way to get everyone together. So they brought employees in as soon as they could and “it was an emotional Monday.”]
“The store was never for sale.”
To be clear, Barb said: “The store was never for sale.”
“We were approached in fall about selling the business, and we took them up on their offer,” she said.
Hometown Grocers Inc. (HGI) is the purchaser, and while HGI is affiliated with the Skogen Family who has been in the grocery business since 1946, and the Skogen Family does operate Festival Foods (as well as other businesses entirely unrelated to groceries), Dave’s County Market won’t be changing much at all.
“It’ll be Dave’s County Market, and it will be our staff that will be leading, that will still be working here. They will work with and pick a leadership team [promoting people from within] and then just kind of work with them.”
No, the store will not undergo new branding or any big transformation. Rather, Dave’s County Market will still keep the same name and the same employees and product lines, and it will be pretty much “business as usual” going forward, simply with different owners, the Bonnells said. Employees will not have to reapply for their jobs; they will simply come in to work like normal on July 30 and afterwards and continue on with their current jobs, except that there may be potential for some employees to advance into leadership roles in the near future.
“The only thing that’s changing is Barb, David, and I won’t be [here],” Jeff said.
Retiring? Let’s just call it relaxing!
When asked if they were retiring, the Bonnell siblings said, “It’s called relaxing!”
“For me, everything just came at a good time, and as we all talked, I think we all realized, it was a good opportunity,” Barb said. “When we had the meetings … it was like, are we retiring? What are we calling it? How about just relaxation? We’re gonna relax for a while, and then we’ll figure it out.”
“I have a grand baby now,” Barb said, “A new grand baby, two months old.” With two grown children, one in Onalaska and the other in Boston, she’s looking forward to traveling a little and spending more time with both of her kids and her husband.
David said he will, “Just relax, tinker around the house, do projects. I have a shack, too, I can kind of go up there, cut some wood. It’s gettin’ to be fall, and there’s nothing better than fall up in the woods.” And of course, there is always a list of things to do at home.
He is also planning to make good on his resolution to walk his two dogs more, especially the shepherd husky mix, to help her lose weight. Since January and that resolution, so far, “I think I took her out once,” David said, laughing.
Camping is one of his favorite things, so he’s planning to do more of that. And then, maybe he’ll do some fixing on the shack. “It’s been there for 50 some years, and it’s startin’ to sag,” he said. “And there’s a porcupine that lives under it … Last year during deer season, I could hear it chewing on the floor [from underneath], and I was thinking I was going to wake up and find a porcupine in the bunk room with me, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
There was some laughter when I asked what kind of hunting David does. He answered deer, but the laughter told me there was a little more to the story. After some digging, it appears the “hunting shack” is actually more of a man cave he calls a hunting shack to sound cooler, as they frequently set it up with a Direct TV dish and TV and watch Packer and Badger games, and “If you feel like going out in the woods to hunt, you can, but if you don’t – if it’s too cold – you stay in the shack,” he said.
Still, set on 40 acres, he could get it set up for more comfortable hunting. “Our goal, too, is to put up permanent blinds,” David said. “Right now we just have ladder stands, that are 16 feet up in the elements, and that’s not fun for me anymore.” While it’s something he didn’t mind doing when he was younger, now he wants to be a bit more comfortable.
Anyway, he plans on “tinkering around this fall anyway… maybe do some cutting in the woods … and maybe trying to get rid of the porcupines.”
Jeff’s three children are all grown, and he plans to do some “destruct-ion” in preparation for some “construct-ion” at his house. He said he doesn’t hunt or fish or do construction, but the destruction part of some projects at home, he might handle. He’s also looking forward to spending more time taking his two golden retrievers out for more walks. And, like the others, just relaxing.
“I’m used to jumpin’ in the shower and coming into the store, seven days a week,” Jeff said.
“I don’t think the enormity has really sunk in yet,” Barb said. “After 45 years …”
All three are taking a deep breath and taking a step back from the store and careers that have dominated their lives since they can remember.
“Future? … None of us really know,” Barb said. “We’re just not gonna have to worry is the big thing.”
All three described the grocery store as almost another home. They typically came into the store every single day, even on holidays, unless they were out of town.
“We always were here, even when it was closed,” Barb said.
“I always said I was cursed – I had Dad’s blood,” she said. “Once you get into the retail side of things, you call it a curse, but it’s – none of us, the three of us, wouldn’t be here if we didn’t want to be here.”
But now each has a few preliminary ideas for what comes on and after July 30, all centered around relaxing instead of working seven days a week. And only time will tell.
An opportunity too good to pass up
When asked what jobs they performed these days or their specific titles and what they’ll be leaving behind, the three siblings were a bit perplexed. Clearly their involvement with the business over the years couldn’t be wrapped up neatly into one little package or title.
“Well what did you do?” I asked them in turn. We laughed together at the answers they gave and joked about possible new unofficial job titles. Barb’s was “Everything,” Jeff’s was “Everything Else,” and David said his might be “Whatever’s Left” or “The Leftovers.”
“That’s who we are,” Barb said. “That’s what this is about. It’s not a sad thing. It’s a good thing. It’s a good group [HGI] to leave our staff with and to leave the community with.”
“And to be approached by this group is just an honor,” she said, “that they would pick us out, know the success and the story of our family and the business for as long as we’ve been in the community; and they sought us out.”
They were approached and the opportunity was just too good to pass up, she said. The timing was just right. “It was at a good time,” Barb said, “A good time for us.”
“So now I kinda joke. Now we get to join our sister [Lisa] and be sane,” she added.
They will miss each other though
Their dad, Dave Bonnell, started out working at the Red Owl in Antigo at age 15, then progressed until he became the meat manager there, and then became a traveling meat man, going from store to store to help. By then he was married with children, and he landed in Merrill in the meat department and moved his family to Merrill in about 1965. Then, when the business came up for sale in 1975, he and his brother, Dick, saw the opportunity to own their own business. And the rest, as they say, is history. Dave and Dick Bonnell bought the Red Owl in Merrill and renamed it Dave’s Red Owl because Dave was the more familiar figure in Merrill.
Barb, David, and Jeff have been involved in the business since childhood, and they shared lots of memories.
Jeff remembers scrubbing floors at night and then riding his bike home afterwards at like 9:00 p.m. Not many kids would do that these days, Barb said.
The stories started to come, one after the other.
“Mom and Dad left me at the store after church on Sunday once,” Jeff recalled. “We went to church, went to the store, and I was still in the store – I was probably this big. [Jeff held his hand up about three feet off the floor to illustrate.]”
“And I remember seein’ ‘em leaving,” Jeff said laughing, and then his siblings joined in at the memory. “They left me at the store!”
“I’m sure they came back after a couple minutes or so, but I just remember ‘em leavin’,” he said.
Starting at the bottom – the memories started coming
All of the kids in the family started out from the bottom. From scrubbing floors to bagging and stocking shelves.
“And sweeping the parking lot,” David volunteered.
“Bagging potatoes and oranges,” Barb said. “You know, back then you had crates of oranges and potatoes and sat in that back room and weighed ‘em up.”
“Golden Goat,” Barb recalled.
“Oh yeah,” David said. Everyone started talking about the summertime and the wasps and hornets that plagued the Golden Goat. [For those of you who don’t know, that was the name of a large machine that “ate” your aluminum cans and awarded you with coins for your aluminum according to the weight you deposited into the machine, all right there in the Red Owl parking lot, which is now the Dollar General store parking lot.]
“People would stick bobby pins in,” Barb said.
“Oh, gosh, dog chains,” Jeff interjected.
“Just to get extra weight in a can, to try to put – ” David said.
“But they didn’t know it kicked it off because,” Barb interjected.
“It’s too heavy,” Jeff finished.
“There was a magnet in there,” David explained. “I was glad to see that one go. ‘Cause after awhile we would do it, and take it to Schultz’s.”
He described the process of taking them in.
Then a quick diversion: “Who was driving the truck when we lost the cans?” Barb asked.
“Dad was,” David said. “He was goin’ over the tracks and the gate opened.”
The Bonnell siblings dissolved into laughter at the memory of the story and the cans all over the street and the railroad tracks that their dad had to pick up.
They reminisced about the changes over the years.
Then they reminisced about the year they had an elephant in the parking lot. The circus was in town, so naturally their dad arranged for an attraction at the store.
Back in the old days, Fridays were a busy day and everybody came to town on Friday night, and they closed at 1:00 on Sundays, they remembered. Then, as more women started working, the weekends became the busiest days of the week and gradually Sunday hours increased. A lot has changed at their store and in the industry, Barb said.
Some of the changes were and are sad or bittersweet
“We’ve had lunch together almost every day for 23 years,” Barb said of time with her brothers. She tried to put her emotions into words, but got choked up numerous times.
“Until you work with your family,” she began.
When the tears started to flow, Jeff stood up and put his arm around her.
“You’ll be all right,” he encouraged, half teasing and half choking up himself.
“C’mon!” he chided gently.
“Being able to work with my brothers this long and be successful,” Barb choked out. “I know Dad is proud of what we’ve done and even prouder that we’ve been able to walk away. You know, even prouder that we were able to walk away and enjoy life. And be able to, like I said, be sane, like our sister. But for sure, to work with my brothers – and anybody that works with family, understands it.”
“People say, how do you have lunch together every day, and then probably have supper, and I mean, that was [how it was] with Mom and Dad. I mean you were just always around. But to be able to work side-by-side with my brothers for all these years and to be successful – I’m so proud of that. That just makes me proud, and I know Dad is, and I’m even prouder to say, ‘It’s time. It’s time, and it’s a good time.’ And Mom. We can’t forget about Mom.”
She laughed about Rita, saying, “She wants to know but she doesn’t want to know. We always joke, If we pick on you, you know we love you.” So her Mom got picked on plenty by all of her kids.
“We always joke, ‘Oh Mom’s here. Somebody better go get carts in!’” Barb laughed.
And: “Mother alert, Mother alert!”
“For us, too, Mom’s still around, but she’s not in the store,” Barb said. “She stepped away a little bit. Dad’ll be gone 16 years in October. Back then she said, ‘If I didn’t have the store, I don’t know what I’d do’ after Dad passed. She was always that quiet behind-the-scenes person. She taught us just as much as Dad, in different ways.”
“Now she lives up in Tomahawk, and I’m sure she’ll be keeping three of us busy, not just one,” the three now-grown kids laughed, thinking of their mom, Rita Bonnell.
They will miss their “other family”
“And you’re here mostly, it’s because of the people,” Barb said. ““I won’t miss the business, but I’ll miss the people. That’s really what it is. It’s the people.”
“For me, it’s the customer or the employee. I mean, when you think about employees … thousands … we have about 120 people now. So you think of 45 years of employees. Wow, it’s hard to wrap your head around; it’s probably thousands that have worked here, between high school kids, college kids, part-timers, and full-timers.”
They think about all the kids they’ve known from their time working at the store, who have come through, graduated, gotten married, and have kids now. Literally generations have worked at Dave’s over the years. And they’ve tried to be flexible.
“We really had to be,” Barb said. “I tell anybody I hire: ’We know there’s life outside of Dave’s County Market. We just know that.’ For the three of us, there wasn’t,” She laughed. “But for everybody else there was, and we got that.”
“To be a high school kid and have a job, another responsibility – school obviously was first and foremost important – but we were all athletes, and Lisa. And our kids were all athletes, so you understood that, gosh, they had school all day long, and then they had practice, that was just a common thing. We got it. But those kids gave just as much. And it was nice to have that blend of kids that weren’t out for sports and then the ones that were. But I always said the young kids kept me a little bit younger.” They all enjoyed following the younger ones and their lives and reading about them in sports in the Foto News.
When Barb, Jeff, and David started talking about their employees, every one of them physically started choking up.
Each employee, past and present, has made a difference to them, they said.
“They’re all important to us,” Barb said. The camaraderie, teasing, and getting to know their employees has meant so much to them.
“The kids have kept me young,” she said again.
“Our employees are like our family,” Jeff said. “So that’s gonna be probably the toughest thing of all, sittin’ at home on the 30th. Of what am I gonna do? Not that I’m gonna be wonderin’ what they’re doing, but just missing that interaction with somebody that we’ve been with for how many years.”
Open house for good-byes
While the Bonnells aren’t moving away, they do want to have a chance to talk with all the people who have meant so much to them over the years.
“We thought maybe we’d set something up that Wednesday, July 28, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., so people who want to can stop in and say good-bye,” Barb said.
They’re planning to have cookies and refreshments and hope current staff and past, and their customers, will stop in to visit.
They will still be around on the 29th, too, but they’ll be doing a final inventory, and it will be a lot busier that day.
It’s all going so fast right now, but the siblings agree that it’s gonna take some time, maybe a month, when they say, “Wow, we really aren’t at work anymore. It really happened.”
Thank you to the community, too
“I would like to thank the employees, and the community, for the last 45 years, ‘cause we wouldn’t have made it this far without any of them,” David said. “They’re all important – the employees. And the community.” He started choking up, too. “It will be missed.”
“Tears of joy,” Jeff said. For the years, and the opportunities. “But sadness too, missing the people.”
“We do like to thank the community, and our employees, for the years working for us, and it’s probably what I’ll miss one of the most is being around somebody,” Jeff said. “We all enjoy the public. It was a very fun business to be in. None of us, if we didn’t want to be here, we wouldn’t be here, working seven days a week. But the one thing I think I’ll miss, like I said before, is the people.”
“A thank you to the community for sure. We wouldn’t be here without the community,” Barb said. “I mean, that’s one thing that we learned from Mom and Dad: You give back to the community, because the community has given to us. So for 45 some years now, we’re very thankful that the community has supported us and all the different changes. I mean, the internet shopping, the Amazon shopping, the big box stores – that they’ve supported us and our staff all these years. I mean, it’s just been great. We wouldn’t be here without them either. We wouldn’t be here without our staff or the customers that have supported us.”
And that’s why HGI was the right fit and the right time
If it had been another business making another offer, the Bonnells might not be taking this step.
But HGI was the right fit coming at just the right time.
“That’s with the new group buying us, too,” Barb said. “They understand small towns and smaller businesses like ours.”
“I really just want people to realize, like after six months, that hey, we haven’t seen Barb, David, or Jeff, and someone will say, ‘Well, they sold,’ and they’ll say, ‘What? I didn’t see that story. That’ll happen too.’”
The Bonnells believe this transition with be a positive, and easy transition, for the community because of what HGI stands for.
“We definitely have a commitment to the new leadership team to make sure that it’s easy for them,” Barb said. “You’re gonna find out that this store’s gonna run fine without us. We admit it. We know it. It’ll be fine. It might be a little bumpy, but it’s gonna be fine. It really is. It will run without us.”
And after a short step back, Barb, David, and Jeff won’t be too far away.
“We still gotta eat,” David said.
“Oh, yeah, I’m not shopping anywhere else,” Jeff said.
They all laughed.
“I’ll come in here. but we just want to sort of set back and let them be, and they’ll figure stuff out,” Jeff said. “Cause there’s times that all three of us aren’t here and the store, it runs just fine.”
They want to step back and not hover and let the staff do their thing. But they won’t be far away, and they’ll be back to say hi and to buy groceries.
It’ll be the same thing as now, only a little bit worse now when they come to shop and end up stopping to talk to everyone, Barb said. There will be no such thing as a fast in-and-out shopping trip for them for a while.
“Like David said, we gotta eat. So yeah, we’re not shoppin’ anywhere else,” Jeff said. “And I hope nobody else plans on going anywhere else, because they’re not just supporting them [the new owners, with their continued business], but they’re supporting the employees also.”
“We will be in here,” he said. “Maybe it might take a few days or so, until I’m out of beer [everyone laughed], but yes, I will – we will all – definitely be shopping here.”