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The Sun Valley Guide magazine is distributed free three times a year to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area communities.

Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express newspaper will receive the Sun Valley Guide with their subscription.

All in the family: While the fourth generation of Atkinsons’ grocers, Peter (left), Morgan (center) and Jon (right), have yet to venture into the realm of business, co-owners Whit and Chip (center back from left), with the help of their wives, Susie (left) and Monica, are proudly carrying on the tradition started by their grandfather Chuck in 1956.

50 Years of family

Through five decades and three generations, Atkinsons’ Market has outlasted competitors large and small to become Ketchum’s sole surviving grocery store. Rebecca Meany talks with the family and employees to discover the secrets of this Wood River Valley institution’s success. Photos by David N. Seelig.

Tom Pyle looked out his second-floor office window and caught a glimpse of his past. The general manager of Atkinsons’ Market quickly sized up the scene below: customers prodding produce, checkers moving items over scanners, baggers sending groceries out the door—not too bad for a late-summer afternoon.

Pyle’s mind works fast—not surprisingly, as he has worked in the business, exclusively at Atkinsons’, for more than 30 years. “I did the same thing then that I’m doing today,” he said. “Stocking, carryout. Now we have 250 employees, and I expect them to do the same thing they did when they started: customer service. When it’s busy, I don’t care what your position is, you’re here for the people.”
Once in a while, the activity takes him back to his early days with the store: mountains of glass bottles that needed sorting, a giant cooler that needed restocking, people’s armfuls of groceries that needed relieving. Never did it occur to him that he would still be an Atkinsons’ employee into the next century. Never did it occur to many shoppers that the market, too, would last that long.

The Sun Valley Shopping Center contained the first Atkinsons’ Market. Defying expectations about its potential for success, and its ominous opening day of Friday, July 13, 1956, the store is still going strong 50 years later.

In the beginning
Charles “Chuck” Atkinson managed a little general store in 1930s Picabo, a tiny town southeast of Ketchum. He and his wife, Floss (Flossie), had moved from Chicago to Idaho to be closer to Flossie’s parents in Pocatello. Atkinson initially found work building the new resort in Sun Valley and later owned a small combination grocery store and gas station in Picabo. In 1942, the Kilpatrick family, who owned Picabo’s general store, recruited Atkinson to run it.

In the mid-fifties, the Kilpatricks decided to close the store and divvy up their holdings. Determined to stay in the business, Chuck enlisted help from George and Peggy Kneeland and one of the Kilpatrick brothers (“He had always really liked my grandfather,” said Chip Atkinson) to purchase the Christiania, a former gambling casino in Ketchum. Poker tables, sitting idle since a state prohibition on gambling in 1953, were moved aside in favor of cash registers, and the first Atkinsons’ Market opened its doors in the newly christened Sun Valley Shopping Center on Friday the 13th of July, 1956.

“Everybody said, ‘Oh, they won’t last a year,’” said Chip. But with the help of Chuck’s sons, Stan and Don, the store gained a foothold. Cans of green beans were soon flying off the shelves. Packaged cake mixes, Swanson TV dinners and Brie cheese jockeyed for room in shoppers’ carts. Kids pleaded, whined or flashed a cute smile for Dum Dums, Slo-Pokes and Atomic Fireballs.

Don’s sons, Chip and Whit, who today own the business, recall childhood experiences in their after-school playhouse—afternoons spent scurrying through the store and slipping around corners in the stockroom. “We would come here after school every day and race around in the six-wheeled carts,” said Whit. “There were so many hiding spaces in the store. We had a great time.”

The business continued to expand, and the family sought additional space. “We did well enough that in 1969 the opportunity presented itself to grow,” said Chip. A partnership that included Steve Giacobbi and George Hellyer, Don’s brother-in-law, built Giacobbi Square on East Avenue and Fourth Street in the heart of Ketchum. The Atkinsons then sold the Sun Valley Shopping Center and opened up shop a few blocks away in the new square.

Then, as now, the ebb and flow of business varied with the seasons. “My dad had a graph that showed sales,” Chip said. “The patterns were so similar. It was the same year in and year out. December was big. Ski season was good, then it dropped off.” Business would rise again in the summer. “Even then, there were lots of second-home owners. The scale of that has changed…it grew…but the patterns are the same. The growth was steady. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was steady.”

Destruction leads to expansion
A spark to the roof in 1983 brought business to a halt. The fire spread quickly throughout the structure and the new store was destroyed. The market took up temporary residence a block north on East Avenue, where China Panda restaurant is today. The family also set up a produce tent in the town plaza. “That was May, and we were open again by Christmas,” said Chip.

For the Atkinsons, the disaster was anything but. “It was one of those events that, in hindsight, was a blessing in disguise,” said Chip. “We got a bigger store out of it. We were already starting to see we needed a bigger space, even before 1983.” This was not the family’s first brush with upheaval. In 1977, in order to establish a foothold in Hailey, Atkinsons’ took over the Triple S grocery. They quickly moved to a bigger location, the Fox Building—now the Hailey Library—and when an expiring lease prompted yet another move, Don and Stan decided to build specifically to meet the needs of the Hailey Atkinsons’.

A shopper peruses the selection of meats at Atkinsons’ in Giacobbi Square, 1969. Current meat manager, Mike Woodall, says the store keeps a steady supply of specialty meats and cheeses to satisfy the wishes of the chefs, organic afficionados and international clientele who shop there.

The brothers owned land on Main Street and West McKercher Boulevard, which had been bought with an eye to future business ventures. But plans for Hailey’s Atkinsons’ to be situated on the north end of town were eventually abandoned. “The city and county fought so much,” Chip said. A more central location was finally approved, and Alturas Plaza opened, one block east of Main Street, in 1993 with Atkinsons’ Market and The Drug Store as the anchors. Less than 10 years later, the city and county allowed grocery titan Albertsons to build on the very site the Atkinsons had initially sought.

In 2003, another expansion opportunity arose when Valley Market in Bellevue went up for sale. “We saw the growth, and Bellevue has a way to go, but obviously it seemed right,” said Chip. “Earlier, we never would have built a store there because it would cannibalize our Hailey store too much. But since somebody else did it…”

Part of the family’s secret has been to insulate their business from the vagaries of real estate. Buying one’s property, Whit said, is “critical.” “You have to control your destiny. The value of real estate (here) is not based on reality.” That philosophy, beginning with grandfather Chuck, has allowed Atkinsons’ to move swiftly when opportunity presented itself.

A family reunited
A few years before Alturas Plaza opened, Whit returned from college and began to get involved in the business. Their sister, Tory, also came back and joined the team.

In 1995, Don and Stan agreed to sell their interest in the business to the three children. “My kids were doing all the work,” said Don. “They had all the responsibility. I said, ‘If they’re going to do all that, they should have all the ownership.’” Having his children work in the business was no certainty. “I told them they had to work for somebody else before they could come back here,” said Don. “You can’t just work for your dad.” Don had an idea Whit would come back into the fold, but he was less sure about Chip. When Chip told his father of his wishes, “you could have knocked me over,” said Don. “I said, ‘Come on back.’ I was so lucky to have all of them back.” Indeed, Don counted on luck rather than force. “I think my dad always hoped, but he never pushed,” Chip said.

Tory, who managed personnel, has since left the business, but the brothers continue operating the three stores jointly. Chip’s wife, Monica, runs The Drug Store in Hailey, and Whit’s wife, Susie, works in the Ketchum store. “I think we’re pretty lucky,” Whit said. “We divided the work so it’s not a problem. We don’t fight to the death. I can’t think of a time when something didn’t happen because of a disagreement. We’re on the same page on most things.”

Although Stan died in the spring of 2006, Don feels the fortune of family all around him. While Tory lived in California for many years, she has since moved back. All three children live near their father. “I can throw a rock and hit Chip’s house,” said Don. “It’s the luckiest thing in the world to have them all here.”

Keeping intra-brood peace is one aspect to a successful family business. But the Atkinsons say making good with the community is another imperative. “It’s real important to be very generous in what we give back to the community,” said Chip, who estimates the family gives away a couple hundred thousand dollars’ worth of cash every year, and tens of thousands more in gifts of goods. Local charities, including the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, the Sun Valley Center for the Arts’ Wine Auction and numerous children’s programs have benefited from the Atkinsons’ support. “That’s the duty of an independent, family-owned business,” said Whit. “If there’s any strength to an independent business, it’s that they’re connected to their community.”

A high-end store?
Over the years the family has dealt with the community’s perception that their store is high-end. The recent increase in the popularity of health foods, organics and specialty foods, which cost more than mass-produced, mainstream foods, have only added fuel to the view that Atkinsons’ is a pricey place to shop. “The hard part is,” said Chip, “organics have become a more desirous commodity, as well as specialty foods. Some of that stuff is more expensive and that doesn’t help the price perception. Sure there’s a $49.99 bottle of olive oil. But there’s also a $2.19 gallon of milk. We’ve battled that perception forever.”

Change is coming
Growth throughout the valley brings changes for residents and businesses alike. An increase in second-home owners, soaring rents due to high property values and diminished retail activity as year-round residents move south have led the city of Ketchum to make downtown revitalization a priority. In the downtown master plan, adopted by the City Council in September 2006, goals of pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, an enhanced transportation system and increased affordable housing were set forth.

The ideas of beautification and incentives for people to live and work downtown would, in theory, boost Ketchum’s economy and enliven the city core. “The town is growing so quickly, and we have big plans,” said Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall. Issues such as parking, congestion and foot traffic that the city is working on may affect Atkinsons’ future in Giacobbi Square. “There are some impacts the downtown master plan will have on Atkinsons’, but as long as it stays where it’s at, we have to learn to live with each other.”

The Atkinsons, for their part, believe the downtown is enhanced by their store’s presence and, at this point, don’t plan to move. “This isn’t the center because it feels good,” Chip said. “It feels good because this is where all the activity is. Would this be the core if Atkinsons’ or Jane’s were down at the Simplot lot? We understand our role, and we understand our role in the congestion. We’re going to try to address some of the impacts. It’s time for a facelift. But if we were to move, it would be a disaster.”

From his second-floor office window, Tom Pyle can’t see the cars darting in and out of parking spaces, or any of the activity outside. What he can see are reminders of his career, one that rivals most people’s in length and loyalty.
“People say, ‘How did you do it all these years?’

There’s something exciting going on here every day. I don’t think you’d work at a company so long if the people weren’t good to work with. It’s fun to come to work. It’s been a long haul, but it’s been fun.”

Competition is healthy
The opening of Boise-based Albertsons in 2002 took a bite out of Atkinsons’ business. “It hurt,” said owner Chip Atkinson. “But, it was kind of what we expected. The people who really got hurt were Valley Market and Williams Market. Those two stores’ customer bases switched more. 70 percent of our customers I consider very loyal.” Indeed, competition has existed in myriad forms up and down the valley corridor throughout Atkinsons’ history. In 1925, brothers Oscar and Albert Griffith opened a food and outfitting operation on Main Street. In 1937, the Griffith family sold the store to Olie Glenn, whose family named the grocery store the Golden Rule. The Glenns relocated to a new, larger site on the opposite side of Main Street in 1981. After the Golden Rule closed, the store was leased to successive grocers: Safeway, Farmer Jack, Perron’s Market and, finally, Williams Market. “That was all since 1983,” said Chip.

Chris Williams leased the former Perron’s Market site on Main Street in the early 1990s. Business was brisk until September 2001, when the economy stumbled after the terrorist attacks on the East Coast. That event was followed by Albertsons’ opening in Hailey and an exodus of residents to the south valley. No longer were so many shoppers strolling Williams Market’s aisles. The family business closed in 2005.

Despite the southward migration not all Hailey grocers fared well. On March 27, 2002, the same day the new Hailey Albertsons opened, Paul Zatica, owner of Paul’s Market, submitted two applications to the city of Hailey for a new store. His plans were rejected, and the store, which had been on Main Street since the late 1980s, closed in spring 2003.The opening of Valley Market in 1996 created Bellevue’s largest grocery store. However, within six years they sold to Atkinsons’. Now, only chainstore giant Albertsons and Atkinsons’ remain to battle for market share.

The people behind the counters

Mike Woodall
Meat department manager
Ketchum store

10 years
Keeping up with the varied requests of a national and international clientele is one of the best parts of Mike Woodall’s job. “It’s very challenging and at the same time, very rewarding,” he said. “I have the opportunity to buy products from all over the U.S. and all over the world. That part is very exciting. People want the best, the very best quality. This summer people want certain items. Next year it’ll be something else. That’s the challenge.” Woodall rises early to make the long drive from Shoshone to Ketchum every morning. Less expensive housing in Lincoln County allows him to continue working in a place that is by now a second home to him. “This will be my 11th Christmas here,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade this job for anything.”


Margaret Kacalek
Supervisor checker
Hailey store

19 years
Margaret Kacalek joins the northbound flow of cars each morning to travel from her home south of Bellevue to her other “home” in Hailey. “Mostly I take care of the front end and make sure all the checkers get their job done,” said the 19-year veteran of Atkinsons’ Market. “I’ve had a very good experience here. It’s almost my first home. The best part is meeting people, waiting on people,” she said. “And I love my bosses and co-workers. There’s very good teamwork.” Kacalek feels the passing of time only when younger employees—some who do carryouts are just in their teens—return for a visit. “When they come back, they’re married and have kids. You’re going, ‘Oh my gosh. Where did that time go?’ It’s like you raise them as a family.”

Sue Nöel
Customer service desk
Ketchum store

3 years
Sue Nöel’s face is a familiar one to many locals. Besides her three years working at Atkinsons’, and 30 years shopping there, she’s served on the Ketchum City Council, the KART board and the Housing Authority board. Her voice is familiar, too. “I’m really active in singing,” said the Caritas Chorale member. However, her activity at work rivals her off hours. As a customer service clerk, demands come in from every direction. “This desk is multi-tasking to the nth degree. It’s sort of like being a concierge in a hotel. I give recommendations on where to eat and what to do, things that don’t really have anything to do with Atkinsons’. I’ve lived here so long, I can do that.” One of her favorite tasks is selling lottery tickets. The customers, the Atkinson family and the daily challenges will keep her working at the store for years to come. “Unless I win the lottery, I’ll do this until I drop at the cash register.”