The Dave’s County Market logo says the store values fresh, family and you. It’s a mantra that has created success for the independent grocery 44 years after Dave Bonnell purchased the former Red Owl store.
The store, at 300 E. 1st St. in Merrill, has been a cornerstone of the community for years, relocating to its current location in 1997. Its last remodel occurred about 10 years ago, including the installation of a new loading dock, and current co-owner Barb Haffemann says that’s it for expansion since the store property is landlocked.
Fortunately, the 50,000-square-foot-store maximizes its space in delivering everything its customers expect and demand of Dave’s. What a guest finds when canvassing the aisles is a direct outgrowth of customer expectations. This includes a meat department that includes more than 20 varieties of homemade brats including one made with Sawmill Brewing Co.’s Sawmill River Hog Oatmeal Stout; produce that goes far beyond the usual apples, oranges and bananas to include items like yellow watermelons; a full-service bakery that includes many made-from-scratch items including gluten free baked goods and paczkis at Mardi Gras time; lots of homemade items in its deli; a growing liquor department with many craft beers and a large walk-in cooler; and an extensive offering of non-GMO, organic and gluten-free items.
“In this day and age, we’re in a battle against not only big box stores but also online retailers like Amazon and we have to keep things interesting and exciting for our customers because that’s what brings them back,” Haffemann said.
That includes keeping a finger on the pulse of social media, cooking shows, food trends and more and switching up some of the products on the shelves and in the coolers to reflect what customers ask for. It’s also about providing the services and amenities beyond edibles that customers appreciate including an on-site Park City Credit Union branch and gasoline including a gas rewards program that benefits customers on their in-store purchases. And it’s about creating an experience — both on regular days and with events including seafood sales, product tent sales, kids’ week, anniversary sales and offerings.
“Those are things we do to differentiate ourselves from the corporate entities that might sell similar items,” she said. “I want to make sure we have the products they want here before they even ask for them.”
It’s a personal mission of Haffemann’s, and something she perpetuates not only with the help of her vendors and customers’ input but in always visiting and checking out grocery stores when she travels. That included visiting family in Florida as well as her son’s college town grocery stores and everything in between.
“While we can’t carry everything, I’d say that 80 to 85 percent of the time we can either get an item the customer wants or say, ‘That’s in aisle 4 already,’” she said.
The perishable departments are huge, especially the store’s meat department as “my dad was a meat man so it’s important to have the highest quality meats,” Haffemann said.
While Bonnell passed away unexpectedly in 2005, his legacy lives on in every nook and cranny of the store including staff’s focus on taking care of the customer. Haffemann said that the store has always been like a second home as she, her sister and two brothers grew up in the business. All of Bonnell’s children worked in the business to some degree, although Haffemann and her two brothers are the primary family members involved on a day-to-day basis.
“We know all about being in the store on Friday nights in the summer, sweeping the parking lot or bagging oranges or potatoes into smaller bags,” she said. She and her siblings learned a strong work ethic from her dad as well as her mom, Rita Bonnell, who continues to spend time at the store.
That said, it wasn’t always a foregone conclusion for Haffemann that she would work in the business, but the tug to live in Merrill and to the store was strong.
Nowadays, it’s a rare day that she and her two brothers aren’t in the store.
“The only day I don’t go in at some point is when we’re not in town,” she said. “Being involved, being at the heart of the community and making sure our store is ready for the customer is important. We have to be better at service than anybody else. The independents are few and far between. Our dad taught us to work hard and always be the best, and that’s what we do. It’s more important than ever now that the Piggly Wiggly in town closed, and we’re the only grocery in town.”
While online options such as Amazon are formidable competition, Haffemann believes that the store’s customer orientation and the shopping experience itself are key differentiators. “I firmly believe that while you can buy online, shopping is more of an in-person experience you can only do in a store,” she said.
It helps to have staff who embrace the customer-oriented mindset and who are just as passionate about the industry as Haffemann and her brothers. Being a family-owned business, they work hard to work with and support their employees through good times and hardships. While Haffemann’s produce clerk just left after 16 years, the store’s produce manager has been with the store for more than 20 years, and the meat manager and deli manager are not far behind. All total, the store employs about 130 people including many young adults. “I think it’s fun to work with the high school kids as they keep me young and they help us stay involved in what’s going on at their level,” she said.
Supporting students and the local schools is also important to Haffemann. Dave’s County Market sponsors many community events including Ribfest, Relay for Life and the Lincoln Lager Barleyfest in addition to student athletes and students in other activities. “Many of them work here. We understand how being athletes or in band, musicals, etc. helps make these kids wellrounded as they understand things like time management,” she said.