by Terrie Ellerbee/associate editor
With a name like Gus, he’s got to be a grocer.
Gus Buche, that is, the seven-year-old son of fourth-generation grocer RF Buche. Gus is named for RF’s great-grandfather, August Francis Buche, who started the family business 110 years ago in Lake Andes, South Dakota. GF Buche Co. and the state grew up together. Gus Buche was 24 years old and South Dakota had been a state for just 16 years in 1905.
Gus the elder left some big shoes for the generations that followed to fill. In addition to founding the company, he played in the South Dakota Sunshine Amateur Baseball League in the 1920s. He was a South Dakota senator in 1933 and 1935. He also was one of the originators of the Lake Andes Fish Days celebration, which still takes place the first weekend in June each year.
He nursed the company through the Great Depression, never missing payroll or failing to meet other obligations. He was 93 years old when he passed away in 1975, and was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame for Business in 1994.
Robert Sr., Gus’s son, had taken over as president in 1955 and RF Buche’s father, Robert Jr., took the helm in 1976.
RF Buche has been president of the GF Buche Co. since 2000. Today the company operates in nine communities with 12 locations, including Gus Stops, a convenience store concept and a nod to the founder.
RF Buche is lot like his great-grandfather Gus, at least according to his dad and grandpa, who often made the comparison. One commonality is a penchant for promotions. In the 1920s, Gus Buche threw live turkeys off the roof of the Lake Andes store. Customers who caught them could keep them.
In the 1950s, it was ping-pong balls dropped from an airplane over the GF Buche Co. trade area. RF’s father, Robert Buche Jr., was in charge of the ball drop, but over Presho, he dropped some of his lunch as well.
These are stories still celebrated at Buche Foods, and RF Buche is doing his part to add to company lore. Case in point: when he was 4 years old, he snuck out of the house and walked through blizzard conditions to follow his father to work.
And RF Buche has been known to don a kilt, turkey suit or dress for a worthy cause.
As for customer promotions, in 2004 and 2005 under RF’s watch, the GF Buche Co. gave away cars for its 99- and 100-year anniversaries.
In 2010, the GF Buche Co. went “green” and stopped mailing out weekly fliers. At the same time, it started offering Barn Burner specials. The program is popular with customers and doubled in size this year for the anniversary sale during the whole month of November. Shoppers could find products like half-gallons of milk or orange juice and three-pound bags of apples for 110 cents.
RF Buche’s love for the grocery business has not diminished since he was that boy walking in the snow, but there is a certain amount of pressure that comes with having a business the family has been operating for 110 years.
“Obviously with any business there’s an ebb and flow, and things are not always great. Sometimes they get difficult and can be challenging at times, and it’s those times when you find out what you’re made of. But it’s that little bit of added pressure, ‘hey, this business—I’m fourth generation—this business has gone on for 110 years, and it’s certainly not going to fail under my watch,’” he said. “But anybody who knows me knows that I eat, sleep and breathe this business. For sure it’s in my DNA and absolutely what I was born to do.”
When he thinks about what his great-grandpa Gus would make of today’s marketplace, he said the abundance of competition would probably surprise him.
“But I doubt the innovation that the small town grocers have come up with would really surprise him, because he was one himself,” Buche said.
RF Buche has that knack for innovation as well and has introduced a new concept called The Bargain Butcher. The price-impact meat store opened a little over a year ago in Sioux Falls and offers mostly frozen products at bargain prices. It’s where customers looking to stock up their own freezer might go, and that is the idea behind the store.
“We find items that are discontinued or missed spec or were short coded and then do just like what you would do at home,” Buche said. “If you find a great buy on bacon, you take it home and you throw it in your freezer. So if we find a truckload of bacon that’s getting ready to have a ‘freeze-by’ date in two weeks, we just throw it right in the freezer, and then we’ll sell everything frozen. We’ll pick it up and sell it to the customer for 30 to 50 cents on the dollar.”
The Bargain Butcher also featured 110-cent buys in November. The concept is something Buche said he’s not seen, and it has been well received.
“We’re doing well, and the feedback and comments that we’re getting back all is very, very positive,” he said.
RF Buche gives back to the industry he loves by serving with the South Dakota Retailers Association and the National Grocers Association.
“I’m very, very passionate about South Dakota, and I’m very, very passionate about the grocery business. Both of these boards are a natural and passion for me, so I do enjoy giving back, but I also think that I bring a bit of value,” he said.
As an observer of the grocery industry at large, he takes note of bigger retailers taking a step back toward opening smaller stores, just like the ones GF Buche Co. operates today.
“For guys like us in smaller towns that have the smaller stores, I think that gives us a unique opportunity to serve our customers the way we always have,” he said. “We just need to continue to evolve with customer service and getting back to the basics, taking care of our employees and taking care of our customers. Some things never change, and those two things I don’t think will ever change.”
*Editor’s note: This story also appears in the December 2015 print edition of The Shelby Report of the Midwest.