Moving forward on Decker's Market

By: 
Bob Bonnar

Photo by Bob Bonnar/NLJ

Danny and Jeremiah Decker look over the construction progress at the new location of Decker's Market, on Washington Boulevard near Loaf 'N Jug. 

Bob Bonnar

NLJ Publisher

 

Dan and Jeremiah Decker have admitted for years that construction of a new Decker’s Market on Newcastle’s east side was in the works, but they were reluctant to publicly confirm that the project was “under way.”

The father/son duo held off on a formal announcement when the lot to the west of Loaf ’n Jug was leveled in preparation for work to begin several months ago, and they continued to keep mum as a massive retaining wall took shape on the hill at the back of the lot.

Last week, however, Dan and Jeremiah announced to the News Letter Journal that the project had officially begun, and they joked that it seemed appropriate to break their silence when workers began pouring the concrete foundation for the new store.

“We were reluctant to talk about it until we had something concrete,” Dan chuckled.

Jeremiah smiled as his father made the joke, but the start of construction marks a massive commitment by the Decker family to the future of the community and their business’ place in it, and the two explained that they wanted to be absolutely certain they were moving forward before making it official.

Their hesitation becomes even more understandable in light of the fact that the first steps toward the creation of this new store were taken more than 40 years ago, when Dan’s father, Max, purchased the lot in the late 1970’s.

“He bought it anticipating that it would be a good location for a grocery store as the town changed,” Dan said, shaking his head in admiration. “He had the foresight to anticipate that.”

A gas station and mini strip mall were soon constructed on the east portion of the site, so the investment proved wise, but Jeremiah was even more impressed with his grandfather’s ability to produce income when he leveled the property to make way for strip mall.

“He sold the dirt off of that location for the highway,” Jeremiah smiled. “He bought a hill and sold the dirt.”

“It was used to build the overpass,” Dan explained.

While the purchase of the location also allowed a new grocery store to be built on the west side of the lot — where a motel once stood — it would take four decades before it made sense to do so, and Dan said there certainly wasn’t any reason to do it in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

“When we bought it things were booming pretty good,” he recalled. “You couldn’t find a decent retail location within a block of Main Street at that time.”

“The place where we are at now was a better location,” Jeremiah confirmed.

Market studies were done approximately every five years to determine when the time might be right to move the store to the east side of town, and shortly after the turn of the century the numbers started to shift.

“The trend actually didn’t change until the school moved, and even then it wasn’t done,” Dan confirmed.

In the years since Newcastle Elementary School was built east of the intersection of Highway 16 and 85, a number of other projects were undertaken. Dixon Brothers constructed a new headquarters across from the school, a new Pinnacle Bank building sprung up at the intersection, the hospital was expanded, Wayback Burgers came to be, and the Newcastle Lodge and Convention Center was built. The numbers continued to shift in favor of building a new Decker’s Market to the east as each of these projects was completed.

“The tipping point may have been the bank,” Jeremiah said.

That tipping point happened to come at about the same time Jeremiah was graduating from the University of Wyoming with a Master’s Degree in Finance, and it meant that he and his father had a decision to make. Dan was nearing retirement, and Jeremiah wasn’t certain if he wanted to use his degree to go into the family business. 

“Would you have built it (the new store) if I didn’t come back?” Jeremiah asked.

“Nope,” Dan responded.

“And I wouldn’t have come back without building it,” Jeremiah nodded.

“So it was kind of a joint resolution,” Dan smiled.

At that time, the plan was for Dan to keep working for another 18 months, at which point he would hand the new store over to Jeremiah, but the process proved to be considerably longer than either anticipated. 

“I missed it at 66, and missed it at 68, so I’m trying to hit 70,” Dan said, noting that it will actually have taken more than four years from the time when they agreed to move forward to the time when it is all said and done.

“You have to deal with things that are unexpected, and the process has been more challenging than we expected. There are government agencies we had to deal with that we didn’t know existed,” Dan said.

“Dad has really been the one to oversee the project, and he deserves all of the credit for seeing it through. For better or worse, I would have given up two years ago!” Jeremiah said, noting that Dan pushed the project forward over the past several months while he managed the store operation.

“There’s no way he — or anyone for that matter — could run the business while overseeing a project of this size,” Jeremiah explained. “This has actually provided a natural avenue for me to begin overseeing the stores and him to segue into semi-retirement, although I doubt he’ll ever truly retire.”

Jeremiah admits that the last few years haven’t been exactly what he envisioned himself doing when he spent his college years studying finance and investment strategies either, but he said there is little doubt that he is “using” his degree.

“We’re going through a reinvestment cycle and upgrade,” Jeremiah said.

Over the years, the family has owned a total of 13 different stores in communities from Nebraska to Wyoming — and at one time were operating as many as nine of them simultaneously — but that number is now down to three. Jeremiah explained that they have now made investments in all three of those locations — Newcastle, Sundance and Lusk — in recent years, and that has paved the way to construct a large new store here to serve as the centerpiece moving forward.

“This will be the platform for growth, we hope, and that’s something I think we need,” Jeremiah said.

The new store will be 28,000 square feet, which is 70 percent larger than the current structure’s footprint of 16,600 square feet. The additional space has become important because the grocery business has changed considerably in the past 40 years, most notably in the centralization of warehouses and suppliers. That has made it more difficult to get deliveries in a timely manner. Marketing plans and seasonal merchandise are now established six months early, and orders are made at least a week in advance, instead of just the day before.

“It became more difficult for us to operate our store because we’re running on a business model based on the 70’s. You literally have to change the way you do business,” Dan said.

“We used to have a warehouse 70 miles away, and now the nearest warehouse is in Bismarck, or Omaha or Amarillo, Texas. You need a bigger back room, bigger coolers, bigger freezers,” Jeremiah said.

In the past year alone, three deliveries took an additional 36 hours to arrive at the store, and in their current space Decker’s simply doesn’t have the ability to maintain inventory in such instances.

“The size of the store will give us an opportunity to access things we haven’t gotten before. Our holding power will increase,” Dan said.

Once the decision was made to move forward with construction of a larger store in a new location, father and son had to determine how to fill all of that space. The job of investigating designs for Newcastle’s grocery store for the future fell to Jeremiah, who travelled the region and mapped out 10 different stores. He counted the linear feet of shelving in each of those stores, and broke the measurements down into categories (i.e. - dairy, produce, fresh meat, etc.). He took those figures to his father, who then transferred them to graph paper and created the earliest drafts of the new store.

“The next day I think he had it drawn on 36 x 24 graph paper,” Jeremiah smiled.

Although there would be changes made to that earliest draft, both men marveled at how close it came to the actual structure that will begin taking shape this summer.

“We wrote it all down, and it ended up being 120 feet by 220 feet, and at the end it wound up being 185 by 150,” Jeremiah said. “It is kind of remarkable that it didn’t really change from that day, except that we made it more square.”

There was one final change in the design that was incorporated earlier this year after it was determined that the store should include a pharmacy in the wake of an announcement that the community was going to lose one of only two that exist here.

“We had done our final proof the day before Shopko closed their pharmacy, so that added four to six weeks to it,” Dan said.

A pharmacy won’t be the only new addition to the store.

“We have the opportunity to add a liquor store, and a sit down bakery/deli, and we now have a pharmacy. It is going to bring a lot of things we didn’t have before — more variety, fresher product, wider assortment,” Jeremiah said. 

“Our business office and store will also be combined, so we will generate savings by eliminating those multiple locations,” Dan added.

According to Jeremiah, the bottom line is that these changes will make the experience better for the people who shop at Decker’s.

“There are a lot of efficiencies that make sense on our part, but it is going to really be great for our customers,” he said.

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