Community action takes the form of community-based business plan – Jackson Hole News&Guide

Jana Stearns, owner of Hungry Jack’s, has decided to sell the popular general store at the base of Teton Pass. A group of valley residents is exploring the idea of purchasing the establishment as a community-owned business.

Jana Stearns, owner of Hungry Jack’s, has decided to sell the popular general store at the base of Teton Pass. A group of valley residents is exploring the idea of purchasing the establishment as a community-owned business.
About 100 West Bankers gathered in the Old Wilson Schoolhouse Community Center with an additional 70 on video conference to discuss how to save the main street mercantile Hungry Jack’s now that Jana Stearns is looking to retire her longtime role of lifesaver — whether it was for socks, tomatoes or butter.
“I felt very emotional about it,” Wilson native Camille Obering Musser said. “Seeing so many people there, it was clear the community understands the importance in preserving the character of our town. But we are at a tipping point with a lot of these businesses. People want to retire but if we let these places go, they are gone forever.”
That same anxiety is what fueled longtime West Street resident Biz Doyle and her husband Doug to think about how to keep Hungry Jack’s General Store going when she saw the property listed with an in-house attorney at Sotheby’s where Doyle is also a real estate agent.
“Coming on the heels of the changing of hands with Nora’s, I called my friend Marc and he said ‘This can’t happen.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t have the money’ and Marc said ‘But this town does,’” Doyle said.
Marc Hirschfield, another Wilsonite, who owned former sandwich joint Betty Rock and whose family owns the Snake River Grill, put forth a left-field proposal — but his notion of a community-owned business could be a home run.
“My first reaction was this needs to be something community-based because it would be horrible if Hungry Jack’s went away for the community,” Hirschfield said. “My second reaction was we need to make it some type of community-owned business.”
Hirschfield wasted no time. He partnered with the Doyles to get the property under contract and the trio has been developing the model ever since. They circulated a “Preserve and Celebrate Hungry Jack’s” flyer in Wilson.
“I would say it’s similar to an employee-owned company, but instead it’s members of the community,” he said.
The buy-in for one share is $25,000, and a community member can buy up to 20 shares. The project is looking for 290 shares.
The Center for Community Ownership lists COB success stories on their website like The Village Mercantile in Saranac Lake, New York, and the Cambridge General Store in Cambridge, Nebraska. Those communities have formed companies versus co-ops to operate more nimbly and essentially as crowd-funded investment properties.
In the town hall-style meeting, Biz Doyle said, “$7.25 million includes the purchase of the business, the land and improvements. We have a 20-share max because we don’t want someone to have majority ownership. But to be very clear, whether you own one or 20 shares, it’s still one vote.”
Doyle said she couldn’t provide an itemized accounting of the costs because the contract was confidential, but said more details would be shared with committed investors, and the majority of $7.25 million was for the business and land. Though at the meeting it was mentioned that labor costs would be a contributing cost to ensure long-term employees.
The iconic Wilson frontage pulls on the heartstrings of every resident, but according to one downtown local, John Wasson, not everyone has the ability to write a $25,000 check by the Dec. 5 deadline.
“This just seems very fast, and it’s probably a stretch for most people to invest. In a nutshell, it’s expensive and I am not sure who they are appealing to.”
Wasson said he wants to ask more questions and has signed up for the email list.
Stearns has been working for the family business her whole life. Her parents, Clarence “Stearnie” and Dodie Stearns, opened a general store called Wilson Market in 1954. A few years later it moved to the current building and became Hungry Jack’s. Jana bought it from her folks in 1989. Clarence died in 2015 and Dodie in 2019.
Stearns is optimistic that she will see the community investment on time for a quick closing date.
“I’ve been doing this for 34 years, counting inventory since I was able to count to five. And so, I have been thinking about to make this happen, how to move on and be responsible to my community,” she said. “So I asked my realtor to put feelers out — and Ed is at Sotheby’s which is where Biz came into the picture.”
Stearns thinks the community-owned business model is a boon.
“It’s a dream come true for me and a great concept. It’s better than what I could have dreamed of — to have had so many people turn out because they’re interested and they care, was just so heartwarming and validating. My family has been a part of Wilson for so long — it’s been 70 years.”
She also feels that after seeing the turnout, the COB stands a real chance.
“I am completely confident that we will hit our scheduled closing date in January,” she said.
And according to Doyle, Stearns may be right.
“This really has been very nontraditional. We put the property under contract. And typically the seller and buyer don’t work together, but here it supports both the seller and the buyers’ visions — and the community needs.”
Doyle thought only 40 people would walk through the community center’s doors, but she was elated to see the turnout and the immediate interest.
Obering Musser commented that there was a good mix of old-timers and newcomers at the meeting.
“It’s been a really exciting project to work on after a couple of years of negative energy, COVID and people thinking that this place has changed — but I can assure you from the outpouring of support and the excitement for this, that we have not lost our soul — this is the community I moved here for.”
She said she had received inquiries for 200 of the 290 shares directly after the meeting.
Hirschfield is quick to point out that it’s not all for nostalgia.
“I wouldn’t go into this if I didn’t think it was going to be profitable,” he said.
Proponents also hope to obtain a liquor license for the business. Hirschfield also said that the store’s floor space is not being use fully and is capable of accommodating more products.
“There are always people wondering if they’ll get their investment back but the good and the bad about property in Wilson, Wyoming, is that it’s some of the most valuable commercial real estate in the United States,” he said.
Hirschfield staple food items are going to be affordable and competitive with Albertsons and Smith’s. The focus will be on pushing volume versus maximizing profit on individual products.
There’s another important factor that will be in play to make it work, he added.
“If we all invest, we’re all going to shop here first,” Hirschfield said. “Look, you can’t underestimate how important places like Hungry Jack’s are to a community until they’re gone. We are not back east where there are 200- and 300-year-old buildings. These are our historical landmarks, even if they are only 100 years old.”
Those with questions can head to HungryJacksCompany.com or email directly at hungryjackscompany@gmail.com.
Contact Tibby Plasse via 732-7071 or jlove@jhnewsandguide.com.
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