A handful of 60- and 70-year-olds vowed this week to throw the biggest party their tiny Amador County town of Pioneer has ever seen after the Family Dollar chain canceled plans to buy the community's only supermarket.
The residents' cheers concluded a protest that began in early April when they learned that the owner of Young's Payless Market, on Highway 88, had agreed to sell his store to Family Dollar, a North Carolina company with more than 7,400 stores nationwide.
The switch would have left nearly 6,000 residents of Pioneer and the surrounding foothills driving nine miles on a winding road to Pine Grove to buy fresh meat and produce. Residents launched a petition drive, amassing 4,000 signatures urging Family Dollar to stay away.
Family Dollar abruptly notified Payless grocery store owner Kevin Young on Thursday that it would pull out of the purchase agreement. "We are currently pursuing alternative locations in Pioneer," said Family Dollar spokeswoman Bryn Winburn.
Young, whose family has owned the Pioneer grocery store since 1999, said he never really wanted to sell, but did so because he was worried that Family Dollar would open in town anyway, and he wouldn't be able to compete.
Employee Bill Albers, who started working at the store in 1995 under a previous owner, said Young was pressured into selling because Family Dollar threatened to open across the street if he didn't.
Family Dollar denied the accusation. In an emailed statement, Winburn said the company decided to buy Young's store only after "learning the owner was planning on closing the business." Once it found out Young wanted to stay, Family Dollar voided the agreement, she added.
News that their only supermarket would go away triggered a big reaction in Pioneer. Lynn Morgan, who chairs the Upcountry Community Council, which deals with issues from Pine Grove to Kirkwood, said 200 people attended an April 8 meeting to organize against Family Dollar compared to the 30 or so who normally attend council meetings.
Morgan appointed members to the Save Our Upcountry Payless, or SOUP, Task Force. Organizers sent two petitions to officials at Family Dollar and companies it does business with, and they planned a mass gathering June 7 next to the store, Morgan said.
"I can't even believe myself how many people have come out and supported the store," said Young.
The Pioneer grocery store has operated since 1979 and has 35 employees. Young bought the place with his father and uncle 14 years ago and fixed it up. The Young family has sold groceries since 1953, and also operates stores in Lockeford and in Copperopolis.
While Young insisted he didn't want to sell the Pioneer store, he said he had a legal obligation to do so once the deal was in escrow. He said Family Dollar representatives reacted strongly when they learned Thursday that The Bee was covering the community protests. Within hours, the deal fell through.
Young announced the news to five activists gathering signatures outside the store. He said it was the first time he had spoken to them since April because the situation was uncomfortable.
Emma Darknell, one of the activists outside the store, responded by yelling: "I just feel like I lost 20 pounds! And I know that's silly to say, but that's wonderful!"
Albers said the news was the best thing that had happened to Pioneer in his decades there.
"The majority of our customers are elderly," Albers said. "We're the only full-service grocery store within 10 miles, and it would be a hardship on a lot of our customers to have to drive down the hill for groceries, especially in the winter time."
Upon hearing the news that Family Dollar was pulling out of the deal, Albers unraveled a plain white banner on the conveyer belt of a checkout station. He penned "We Won!" in black capital letters. Two others, Garry Anderson and SOUP head Rich Lockwood, made an identical banner.
Albers, 64, exited the store and approached an elevated plot of land across the street. He nearly fell climbing the red dirt but raised his arms in victory when he got to the top. Lockwood and Anderson, a 74-year-old recently recovered from knee surgery, walked up a path from the side.
The three taped their banners on either side of a large sign they had erected earlier urging residents to sign the anti-Family Dollar petition.
Within moments cars passing by honked their horns and made U-turns to honk again.
While he enjoyed the celebration, Young said that he accepted the risk of Family Dollar opening elsewhere in Pioneer. He had earlier estimated his business could drop 30 percent since Family Dollar could compete in most products except fresh meat and produce.
In any case, the owner of the plot across the street, dentist Christopher J. Schiappa, said he had no intention to sell.
Family Dollar opened its first store in California last year and now has 80 stores in the state, Winburn said. She said the company plans to open 500 stores this year and up to 1,000 stores in California over time.
Family Dollar sells a wide variety of merchandise from shampoo to cellphones to packaged food. It does not sell fresh meat and produce.
Why would Family Dollar care about getting a foothold in Pioneer? According to Bob Reynolds, a Bay Area supermarket consultant, "Rural areas are prime real estate for a dollar store operator because they're the only game in town in terms of the competition."
To cut costs, dollar stores buy existing spaces instead of building their own, Reynolds said, and a 10,000-square-foot market is the right size for a Family Dollar.
Reynolds said most dollar stores, including Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and Dollar General, have expanded rapidly in the past five years.
Call The Bee's Jeffrey Dastin, (916) 321-1037.