by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Midwest
(see more photos at end of story)
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is home to the Oglala Lakota Tribe. It is located a little west of Buche Foods’ normal territory, but the grocery company always is looking to grow. Besides, Buche Foods already operates a grocery store on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in Mission. In fact, eight of the company’s locations are on or near reservations. Still, Pine Ridge looked to be a challenge for any grocer.
“We see ourselves as believing that we can be a right fit for different communities, and this was definitely one of them,” owner RF Buche told The Shelby Report. “We don’t have anything quite the same.”
Buche said his company had been in talks for years with the Oglala Lakota Tribe about opening a store on the reservation. His father and grandfather before him had been contacted by the tribe over time, but non-compete clauses with an operator already there kept Buche Foods off the reservation for decades.
In late 2017 and early 2018, when the other operator’s contract was nearing its end, Buche again was contacted by the tribe. He met with the Oglala Sioux Tribe Office of Economic Development several times.
Both Buche and the previous operator submitted proposals and went before the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council. Buche was awarded the contract in November and wasted no time getting to work. He met with Store Source Direct owner Tracy Lindsey on Nov. 28 to go over plans for the store.
“RF was very committed to the project, very committed to the Oglala Sioux people to get the project completed—and getting not only the store open but also giving them a quality store to shop, giving them more than what they had,” Lindsey said. “Those two things were the driving force behind all of our decisions. How fast were we going to get this done and was this going to be a benefit for the customers?”
The previous owner was given 60 days to liquidate the store’s inventory and 30 days to get the equipment out. There was some confusion as to what exactly would happen with the store and when.
In addition, a U.S. federal government shutdown from Dec. 22-Jan. 25 delayed the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ ability to approve the contract for Buche Foods.
“So, we took a leap of faith ordering brand new equipment, not knowing whether the previous owner was going to sell us the old equipment,” Buche said.
One thing did become evident in January. The grocery inventory liquidation had begun at the store. Tribal members were left with no real choice for fresh food. That insult added to the injury that Oglala Lakota County, which is entirely within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is the poorest in the U.S. based on per-capita income.
“Just think about 80 percent of the community not having cars, 89 percent unemployment, 97 percent living below the poverty level—and you’ve got no grocery store for 48 miles,” Buche said. “They were in a bad spot.”
For 80 days, beginning on Jan. 22, about two months before Buche took actual possession of the store, his company ran a bus twice a day Monday-Friday to a grocery store in a town nearly 50 miles away so tribal members could buy food.
“I promised the tribe that I was going to do that,” Buche said. “We put it on social media. We ran ads on the radio. We put out newspaper releases just to let everyone know—‘look, we know there is some pain and suffering, but here’s what we can do until we get opened.’”
Buche had to build trust with the elders, the council, tribal members and store employees. From the day in November when the contract was awarded to him through the day that he took possession of the store in March, Buche held about eight team meetings to listen to workers’ concerns. Some were apprehensive about a new operator moving in because of how they had been treated in the past.
One example was in 2012, when the Oglala Sioux Tribe had to shut down the grocery store after 11 violations were found in the meat department, including mixing spoiled hamburger with fresh and repackaging it for sale.
This time around, the tribal council wanted some assurance, especially when it came to the workers. Buche promised that they would have a paycheck even before he took possession of the store.
“They wanted to make sure that their families were going to get taken care of, so it was just making sure that they knew that we were going to be here,” he said. “I’m not just giving you lip service. When I say I’m going to pay you as soon as he terminates you, I mean that.”
On Feb. 9, the previous operator closed the store. When the workers were let go, Buche kept his word and began paying the approximately 40 employees for 40 hours’ work every week until March 12, when he finally took possession of the store and could “officially” employ them.
Buche also gave his word that the store would be open within 30 days of his taking possession. He set April 9 as the target date for opening.
“Everyone who knows me knows that if I say I’m going to do something, then we are going to do it,” he said. “When we marked that day, April 9, it was ‘come hell or high water’ that it was going to happen.”
Four main challenges
With the target date set, the first challenge for the project was obvious—time—or, more specifically, the lack of it. Lindsey charted what had to happen within the timeframe Buche had promised, from demolition to bringing in all new equipment, completing new finishes and updating the flooring, paint and lighting.
“Also, a lot of the time while we were still building the store, we were bringing groceries in,” Lindsey said. “We had most of the groceries set before we ever received check stands, before the hardware was ever completed.”
The first step was to strip the store down to four bare walls. All told, 50 30-yard dumpsters of old equipment, shelving, supplies, inventory and other items that had been left behind would be tossed out. All of that would have to travel two dozen or more miles away from Pine Ridge to be disposed of, but the trucks couldn’t get there.
“The second challenge was the weather,” Lindsey said. “The third day that we were there we had a blizzard. We got 28 inches of snow and up to 70 mph wind gusts.”
It was so bad that Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner had issued a reservation-wide lockdown on March 13, prohibiting all traffic other than essential personnel and emergency vehicles from traveling the roads.
The snow was followed by heavy, warm rainfall and rapid snowmelt.
High water had come.
“Here we are trying to get all this old equipment out right in the middle of this storm—and with the flooding, we had nowhere to put this stuff. From the guys coming in early to get the trucks moving to the community allowing us to put old cases and walk-ins on the side of the street until we could get at it so we could keep moving—there was a lot of community and Lakota help,” Buche said.
Lindsey said the weather had “put a little damper on things, but the team pulled together after that and within several days we not only had made up the time but were actually a little ahead.”
Buche and his operations manager, Chris McFayden, had temporarily moved to the area. They were putting in 12-18 hours every day of the week alongside the store’s employees, craftsmen and vendors. Team members from other Buche Foods stores came in to help.
“We really had a great team,” Lindsey said. “The store personnel—we had some of the hardest working, most dedicated people I’ve ever seen on a project. It was an amazing amount of time, effort, skill and just pure enjoyment that they brought to the project. There were days when we had as many as 60 people inside the building working at one time.”
The building that houses the store is just shy of 30,000 s.f.
Lindsey also had high praise for the craftsmen, installers, equipment service professionals and vendors Buche assembled for the project. Design Service Group from Buche Foods’ wholesaler, Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG), took care of the décor. Carroll coolers came from Kysor Warren. Ferding Electric electricians worked in the store. Members of two Hutterite colonies worked on projects from plumbing to painting to carpentry and also provided cabinets and millwork.
Buche’s brother, Aaron, came and stayed for a week and helped out, too.
Friends also came to help. Even The Shelby Report’s Midwest VP Geoff Welch and EVP Paul Hynson spent a couple of days there just before the store opened.
The third challenge during the project was deliveries. Lindsey said due to the location of the store, some freight companies only deliver there one or two days a week.
“There was constant tracking of where freight was,” Lindsey said. “There were several instances when we actually drove to the freight company and picked up the freight because they weren’t going to deliver it for three or four days.”
The fourth challenge for the project was just the location of the store itself—the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The nearest lumber yard is 55 miles away, in Chadron, Nebraska. During construction, Buche said his crew made approximately 20 trips to Chadron and back for supplies. When they couldn’t get everything thing they needed there, it would be a 90-mile drive to Rapid City. Buche said there were a dozen trips to Rapid City. The nearest city for some of the equipment and supplies was Sioux Falls—a six-hour drive.
“Every day ended with ‘what are we going to do tomorrow?’” Lindsey said. “Do we have materials and tools and the saw-cutting machines and the drills and bits? It’s amazing how just not having the right bit or drill can derail you from completing a task that was time sensitive to another task.”
Buche said it seemed that every time a need arose, someone in the community would provide for it. Lindsey couldn’t say enough good things about the support from the local community, from snow removal to trash and dumpster removal.
“I used every favor I’ve ever earned my whole life for this project,” Buche said. “Every time we would get punched in the stomach we would figure out a way to make it work. We just did it.”
A bonding experience
Buche was determined not just to keep his word, but to open a proper grocery store that would instill pride in the community.
“I’m a big believer in you only get one chance for a first impression. The fact that we may or may not have a sign up or may or may not have gotten paint on the side of the building done because of the time of the year or the weather—those are just things that we had to fight through,” he said. “It was just a lot of grinding it out.”
It isn’t just a grocery store. Alongside Buche Foods are Buche Auto Parts and Buche Hardware. Those working on the project knew firsthand that those are almost as necessary as the grocery store.
With so many challenges—getting possession of the store, the red tape, bad weather of historic proportions—Buche knew that he would have to stay positive himself because if he didn’t, the team would struggle.
On March 11, the day before he took possession of the store, he got everyone together.
“We met about four o’clock in the afternoon,” Buche said. “I got the whole team in there and basically said, ‘OK, I need everybody coming in here at eight o’clock tomorrow morning. I’m going to feed you three squares a day all the way through this opening, but we are going to work our tails off. Every time you think about coming in late, needing an extra cigarette break or that you can’t make it, you just think about all of the members of the community who are without a grocery store. Every minute that you put in here is going to save us a minute in getting a grocery store up.’ And they responded incredibly.”
Lindsey hadn’t added “food” as a fifth challenge, but it was. For the many people working in the store, Buche provided coffee, drinks, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“There were a lot of nights that RF was manning the grill,” Lindsey said. “There are really great photos in there of all of us together basically breaking bread—one team working together for the common goal of getting the store open. It built camaraderie and it also saved us a lot of time on the project. It really made things nice for everybody on the project.”
Bringing it all together
Buche Foods on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation opened at 11 a.m. on the target date, April 9. It was a true celebration. Buche hired a Native American drum group to highlight the event.
Buche said he had a strong sense of pride on opening day. He is proud of Lindsey, the Hutterites and all of the contractors, workers from other Buche Foods stores and McFayden.
“I’m even more proud of our team members. They worked their asses off,” he said. “It’s one thing for me to work hard; I should. But the time, energy, heart, blood, sweat and tears these guys put into it was unmatched.”
Pine Ridge grocery shoppers were in for an education with their new store—about low prices, more variety and fresh products. It has more coolers than the previous one and more varieties of just about everything, like cereal. Buche Foods even had special Wheaties boxes produced with photos of local basketball teams on them.
“Sometimes you can’t even dream that big,” Buche said. “They just can’t believe the variety and things that they can get now.”
The store features bilingual English/Lakota signage. Getting the right spelling and pronouncing the words correctly was a bit of a challenge. It had to be right. Buche worked with tribal elders to make sure it was.
Buche Foods also offers deals and savings for its Pine Ridge shoppers the same way stores in “the big city” do, Buche said.
“I gave my word to the tribe that our prices will be similar or lower because that’s just the right thing to do and that’s what they deserve,” he said.
AWG employees (see photos below) brought the fresh departments to life. Bob Durand, VP and division manager for AWG, said Buche Foods is like a new store.
“It’s really a transformation from where it was to where it is today,” Durand said. “RF is really a servant-leader in all of the communities in which he serves customers. We’re just here to help him put it together and get ready for the grand opening.”
Buche Foods offers AWG’s private label brands Always Save, Best Choice and Clearly Organic.
“This market will be prime for those types of brands, along with some of the national brands,” Durand said. “We do a good job with our private label and RF does a tremendous job. He is off to a great start. It will be a super store for the community.”
Vendors, too many to count, also contributed. There was so much help that Buche didn’t want to single any one of them out for fear of leaving someone out. The hard work everyone put in was especially impressive considering limitations for lodging in the area.
“There is no hotel here, so we traveled 27 miles one way every night to one,” he said. “Those guys, they had an extra couple of hours to travel every day just like we did, but they put the hours in to get it done.”
Tribal council members regularly toured the store as it progressed. The council’s decision had not been unanimous. One who voted against Buche visited when the store was about three-fourths complete.
“He was just worried for his people,” Buche said. “I took him through the store. He looked me in the eye, and he said, ‘thank you so much for doing what you said you were going to do.’”
While Buche appreciated the comment, he said it was bittersweet because that is a low standard to meet.
“What bothers me out here is that the tribe and their people get walked on all the time,” he said.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem came to the store to show her support on opening day sporting blue jeans and a baseball cap. (She has since been banned from the reservation by the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council because she supported legislation that would fine or jail protestors at demonstrations such as those around oil pipelines in recent years.)
Buche waited until the end of the interview with The Shelby Report to mention that he has horrible allergies that were aggravated by mold and mildew and that he missed his family terribly as the store was stripped bare and put back together.
“But I loved every minute of it,” he said. “This is an experience I’m sure I’ll never have again. You’ve got about 60 people who were with each other 12 to 18 hours a day. You form quite a bond with everybody all working for the same cause and same purpose. Pretty cool stuff.”