Canned beans and Carhartts. Bananas and boots.
Few stores remain that can thrive off the general store business model in which those items are sold side by side. One of those is Hungry Jack’s, a family-owned, six-decade-old shop in Wilson that looks and smells like the Jackson Hole of old.
Jana Stearns has been running the store since the 1980s, when she took over for her parents.
Her father, Clarence G. “Stearnie” Stearns, died in January at the age of 94. His desk still sits in the center of the shop, raised on a platform but hidden behind a labyrinth of aisles stocked with everything a person needs to survive.
Little has changed over the years, which is part of the store’s appeal. The Stearnses have been able to keep the Wilson institution going just as it has been.
The News&Guide recently sat down with Jana Stearnes to hear the ins and outs of running a general store in the 21st century.
Q: With the recent opening of Lucky’s Market, the valley now seems flooded with grocery stores. What’s Hungry Jack’s secret to success?
A: One of the main secrets is that Wilson is very much its own community. The store is an institution of Wilson and of the valley. Our customers are dedicated to small business, they’re dedicated to the community. They want to be a part of their community, and this is a part of the community. My parents started this business over 60 years ago. There’s a longtime track record.
Q: Can you give our readers a brief history?
A: My parents bought the Wilson Market, which was across the street in the Nora’s building, in 1954. They were in that building for a few years, then they put up this building. My parents owned it until 1988. I bought it from them at that time and have been doing it ever since.
Q: Have there been any big changes over the years?
A: The addition on the back is roughly 20 years new. That was a huge improvement to have all that improved refrigeration and refrigeration storage. That’s probably the most substantial change.
Q: So things have kind of stayed the same. Is that part of the appeal? Shoppers feel like they’re taking a step back in time?
A: I definitely think it’s true. It’s the appearance: the wooden shelving, the wooden floor, the antiques that are around. It just feels like a general store. It even smells like a general store, I’ve been told. It’s the floor. It’s an oiled wooden floor, and that’s where that aroma comes from.
Q: Is part of the appeal also that it’s a one-stop shop?
A: That is. It’s a general store. If we don’t have it, you don’t need it. That’s kind of my motto, in a way, but it’s not completely true. A little bit of everything, that’s the positive motto.
Q: Is there one particular part of the business that is most successful?
A: Our produce business is a huge leading department. We dedicate a lot of time and care to produce, but because we’re small and we have a smaller produce display, that product is turning over much faster. It’s not like in a Smith’s or an Albertsons where a whole case goes out at one time. It’s all kind of handpicked-over, separated out. It gets a lot of care. We get compliments on our produce section. In summer months, daily almost. And the pricing in our produce is very reasonable, I’m told. And we intend to keep it that way.
Q: You always have ripe avocados. How do you manage that?
A: We plan to sell what we’re ordering probably within the next seven to 10 days. There’s actually a case of avocados that is ripening right now in line to go out.
Q: Do you have a favorite item for sale?
A: The section that I enjoy dealing with the most is the greeting card section. That’s my pet section. Local artists are represented there. Every card I pick out. It’s personalized.
Q: You guys don’t have a website. Is that on purpose? Adds to the mystique?
A: You might see that some day. But a website is not very old-fashioned-general-store-like, that’s my token answer.
Q: What’s it been like to watch Wilson change over the decades?
A: Mostly I’ve seen it go from a ranching community to, well, a McMansion community. That’s kind of the story of the whole valley. I think the thing that just amazes me is how many homes are not occupied even half the year. The influx of wealth is just astonishing from the viewpoint of someone who grew up here. It’s the reality of it, though. And it is good for business. I guess there’s no changing it. It’s got a life of its own at this point. It’s interesting to watch what some people think they need and can’t live without.
Q: How much longer will you guys continue renting DVDs?
A: I’m letting it die kind of a slow, medicated death, you could say. We do add new things but it’s nothing like it was at one time. Five years from now it’s not going to be here. But it’s all paid for, and it’s still generating money.
Q: How is business these days?
A: Business is great. Everybody needs to eat. My dad just died in January. He was born in the 1920s. He survived the Depression and World War II. When he was looking for a type of business his saying was “People always have to eat.” That’s the key. Hopefully they need a pair of Sorel boots, too.
Q: You guys have a lot of Carhartts in stock. Tell me about that.
A: At one point in time our clientele was the construction workers that were out here with all the building going on. But it’s pretty well built-out now, and we don’t see those people. So the Carhartt inventory has to shift a little bit from the true worker guy with his double knees to more of an everyday style. What we call the “Jackson Hole dress pant.”
Q: Any final thoughts for our readers?
A: There aren’t many real businesses left here. By that I mean independent, family-owned, small-scale, local places. I think the sense of community is huge here. I think that’s what Hungry Jack’s is really about. People walk in here and they feel like they’re walking into a friend’s house.