McQuary's Grocery rides into sunset
The End of an Era
June 18, 2020
DAYTON–"It's bitter-sweet," remarked Wally McCauley, on the impending closure of Dayton's "Diamond in the Rough" institution, McCauley's Grocery, 301 W. Main Street.
A combination of economic conditions–not helped by the supply-chain uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic–has accelerated Wally's and wife Marie McCauley's retirement plans. As of now, Wally and Marie are planning for Friday, June 19 to be their last day.
"We might have survived one or two issues," McCauley said recently, between ringing up customers coming in for one last shopping session and working the meat counter, "but when you add them all up, it just made the decision that much more urgent."
McCauley's Grocery has been a fixture at its West Main Street spot for about 80 years. Wally believes the store was built just before or during World War II by Joe McQuary. At some point along the way, Joe sold to Verle and Claude McQuary, who were cousins, and Wally and Marie took ownership on July 12, 1982, from Verle and Laura McQuary.
"You're not getting any more meat?" a customer's question interrupts. "No," Wally ruefully answers, to the look of disappointment on Marilyn Banz's face. "I will miss you," she adds.
"That's the end of an era," says Wally, a life-long Dayton resident and Dayton High School Class of 1965 graduate.
Among the fallout from COVID-19, the price of beef has more than doubled. "The cost of meat went from $2.70 to $7.00," Wally points out, making his sought-after hamburger cost zoom from $2.60 to $3.00 a pound to $7.99. "I'm selling hamburger for $7.99 and making half of what I made before," he lamented. "You make less product and sell half as much: it's a double-edged sword."
Just then a customer Wally is ringing up notices a few credit cards lying next to the pile of Dayton Chronicle newspapers on the counter. "Oh," Wally says, gathering up the cards and setting them on the cash register. "He was just in here. I imagine he'll be back."
On this day, Marie is home nursing an illness and Wally is kept busy at the U-shaped check-out counter, fielding questions and ringing up customers who are stocking up on canned goods marked down for quick sale. The couple's daughters, Dianna and Teresa, are slated to come to Dayton on Saturday to front the shelves and further mark down the remaining stock.
McQuary's Grocery still maintained a book of charge customers, although taking the ubiquitous "plastic" is not something Wally ascribed to, simply due to the economics of handing over several percentage points on each sale.
Wally and Marie have been slowing down in recent years. Last year, Marie suffered a fracture and wasn't able to check groceries for a few months. They started taking Saturday afternoons off.
"I'm doing one more batch of sausage," Wally tells an inquiring customer, "and I don't know how much until I make it."
"Well, I'll take however much you want to give me," the customer replied.
A number of people, getting word of the store's imminent closure, had pre-ordered hamburger patties or sausage, one last time.
Wally offers some free caramels to the son of a customer while her purchase is being rung up. "How many did you get?" Wally asks the young man. "Go ahead, get some more in your pockets," he urges.
Hesitantly, the youngster takes a few more pieces, and Wally encourages him to stuff his pockets.
The store is much busier than normal, Wally says, due to the upcoming closing.
On the morning of the interview, the stools at the side of the entrance, where some of the regulars roost and discuss the issues of the day, are empty.
Pork sausage is one thing McQuary's is famous for. "Our sausage has been to Seattle, Port Angeles, to Texas, to Florida," Wally says. "There used to be a fisherman who would buy fifty to seventy-five pounds to take to Alaska. There was another guy who drove from Spokane to Dayton to Port Angeles to get our sausage.
"We've met a lot of great people over the years," Wally said. "A lot of great friends."
McQuary's Grocery's stock in trade was its quality meat. From the corner butcher counter, people are known to travel from far and wide to buy not only Wally's famous sausage, but other cuts of meat.
"People have really liked our meat," Wally said. "I've thought long and hard: What's the difference between our meat and every other store's meat?"
Wally believes it's the meat case that makes the difference. "When we cut it," he said, "and it's out in the case and can breathe, it's not wrapped in plastic. It's exposed to air."
His famous sausage recipe depends on using quality ingredients. "Some put in all the scraps they want to get rid of," Wally says. "All parts of the pig don't make good sausage. If you want good sausage, you start with good ingredients."
The phone, a 1930s wall model with a dial above the hook, rings, another interruption to Wally's story about making sausage. "McQuary's...Wally speaking...."
Someone asks Wally what he'll do with all his free time, suggesting he should write a book about being a small-town grocer for 38 years.
"If I could remember all the funny stories over the years...all the people who have been here, it would be great," Wally acknowledges.
Wally segues into a story about some mischief his late father, Floyd McCauley, who died at age 97 in 2017, got into, involving a .22 shell and a milk cow. Seems his dad had taken the lead bullet out of a .22 shell and replaced it with a BB, then shot the milk cow, who kicked over the bucket of milk and, of course, there was more "aftermath" for young Floyd.
Family roots run deep in Columbia County. Wally's grandfather, Eldon McCauley, was once owner of what is now Warren Orchards on the North Touchet. There are Literals, Abels and Crosslers in the family tree, Wally noting that someone counted some 13 to 17 marriages between the McCauley's and Crosslers over the decades.
In addition to forays into the Blues to run a line of game cameras, Wally enjoyed 30 years of trap shooting with Harry Gladden, traveling the Walla Walla-Waitsburg-Dayton-Pomeroy circuit together.
Customer Tara Brenner thanks Wally for his years of service, and adds how much he'll be missed.
"You miss the people," Wally allows. He always tried to have a smile and be cordial with store patrons. "Life's too short to take hard feelings to the grave," Wally said.
"It's been a fun career," he adds. "It's not one I hated getting up and going to work every day. If you hate going to work, you'd better find a different job."
Both Wally and Marie are proud of daughters Dianna and Teresa, both of whom grew up in the store and learned a solid work ethic. Today both women enjoy successful careers, Wally pointed out.
Wally's comments divert to the topic of the disservice restrictive youth employment regulations have done on today's young people. "We've denied them a learning experience of working with the public," Wally said.
After locking the door for the final time, Wally might head to Idaho for a little recreational gold panning. Other than that, he'll be seen putting around town in his Toyota Landcruiser, which he keeps busy plowing parking lots and driveways in the winter.
"I don't have any big plans," Wally says. "The only place I'm going is a little higher on the hill."