‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot…’12/31/2014
The concrete of the parking lot reflected the last rays of the sun as it fell behind the businesses on the other side of the road. A hard reflection in winter. The Drake neighborhood sprawled out to the south and east. The Beaverdale neighborhood to the immediate north. And anchoring the end of the parking lot, nearly at the top of the hill, was a grocery store made of brick and metal and glass. Indestructible materials. When the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers finally flood this entire plain, future societies will excavate this hill and say, oh yeah, this was the famous Dahl’s Foods. A marketplace where the rich, and the poor, and the in-between, all rubbed shoulders, all pushed shopping carts, all bought a donut for the ride home. A Des Moines institution.
But there was no flood. Dahl’s Foods is just an old man today. Sagging a bit at the waist. The topcoat a little tattered. Not moving too nimbly, or with too much pizazz. But still alive. Still selling groceries. Still watching over us as we make our way through the aisles.
“Bankruptcy” is the word whispered on the street. Liabilities of $41 million. The chain of Dahl’s stores is going under. It can’t survive in any form except through bankruptcy. Various reasons are given as to why it has come to this. Does it matter?
Driving by the Dahl’s store out on Merle Hay Road, the Dahl’s sign is blinking out. Two letters gone today. How many tomorrow? Tick tock.
So I went to check on the Beaverdale Dahl’s.
The Salvation Army bell ringer looked hopeful as I approached the narrow entrance. As he should. Everyone dropped something in the red bucket. Rich or poor. Who wouldn’t? This isn’t complicated. The message is clear. “We’re all in this together.”
And the double doors opened, inviting me in.
The Beaverdale Dahl’s was humming. People were smiling, bustling around, working, steady. I asked for the manager. He was at the cash register checking out customers. Of course.
“There has been a lot of support,” Tom Day said. “This neighborhood has always done a lot to support this store. And they have the same hope for us. People are uneasy, but they’re still in shopping. We have a lot of employees here who have been her 10, 15, 20 years. The customers know them by name. Hopefully they will continue to come and give us the support they have given us the last 83 years.”
Day is not an old man. He smiles and works and talks and gets the job done. He has been the manager for three years at the Beaverdale store. He is responsible for around 70 employees. A lot of people. A lot of families. A lot of worry.
“My New Year’s wish is that my employees here will continue to have a job at Dahl’s, whether it be Dahl’s or some other chain name, that is my biggest hope,” he said, looking at me seriously. This isn’t some ad campaign. This is a man who wants to make it happen for his “family.” And then back to work he goes as another customer comes to check out.
The deli is a Dahl’s trademark from years past. Today, of course, there is a deli in every grocery store, mall, or gas station. But not back in the day. Dahl’s was at the forefront in serving those beans and fried chicken and salad. Iowa food.
Sherrie, the deli manager, has worked the deli since 1991. She personifies the tough, no-nonsense-but-kind Dahl’s women who staff the bakeries and delis and cash registers across the Des Moines metro.
“No last name, please” she said, as if I was being a bit too forward. Then she looked me over — to perhaps straighten my shirt or wipe a smudge off my face.
“My New Year’s wish? I hope we all prosper and have jobs,” she said. “See Dahl’s come back to life again. That would be awesome. This is one of my favorite stores because of the neighborhood. They treat you like family. I love this store.”
On the other side of the store is Nick Hanian. He is a young man, still unformed. New to the meat department. Proud of his job. Tucked away in the corner, preparing meat, he can’t stop smiling when I approach.
What is your New Year’s wish?
“I want to keep honing my trade as a meat cutter,” he said. “I’m five months in, and I’ve never had more fun in a job. My coworker and supervisor have turned out to be my new best friends. I’ve had a lot of fun.”
“For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.” Robert Burns. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.