A tradition ends
After 30 years of ownership within the Ahern family, Madras' first convenience store changes hands
For more than 30 years, a store on the north end of town has displayed a sign that bears a name synonymous with Madras.
But Ahern's Grocery & Deli, or "Ahern's", will no longer be staying in the family. On Monday, ownership was passed on to a Fairview man, marking the conclusion of a 33-year era of ownership by a family known for its civic services.
"It was just time for a change," says Mike Ahern, who took the reins in 1986 from his father, Barney. "I've been doing this all my life."
However, some traditions are too old and familiar to be a cause for change -- like the name. The new owner, Kyongho Shin of Fairview, says he will continue to run the business like his predecessors and keep the Ahern's name displayed proudly.
"I love this small town," says Shin, who is originally from South Korea. "I'm used to living in Tokyo and Soul and here it feels like family. The store is a historical tradition in this town and I'm going to keep it 100 percent the same."
Ahern's was opened in 1968 by Barney Ahern and has been the definition of a family-owned business. Seven of the eight Ahern children worked there growing up and Mike came back from college in 1980 to work full time. His father sold it to him six years later.
While the Ahern's sign has always been easy to spot, so have the Ahern family members. They have a history of civic service in Jefferson County that continues today -- Mike is a county commissioner, his brother Dan is a Circuit Court Judge and their baby brother, Tony, is the publisher of this newspaper.
"I had been the manager of the Safeway store and we had a lot of children and they couldn't work there," says Barney Ahern, recalling why he started the business. "So we opened the store so our children could work through school."
Looks like the experience was helpful.
Of why he ended up with the store, Mike says: "I was the one that had the passion for it." He adds that his three boys have never showed interest in inheriting it because "they saw what it put Dad through."
After a gut-wrenching decision, Mike Ahern put the store up for sale three months ago and a buyer emerged within a week.
"This was not without emotion," Ahern says. "I did very much enjoy the life of owning that store as far as the customers and the challenge. But I'm 45 years old and don't want to work there another 20 years. I'm not unhappy I sold it but I will miss the life -- mostly the customers."
Ahern says it was not uncommon for him to put in 80 hours a week running the store and doing his civic work. He says he hadn't had a Monday or holiday off in years.
The business has always drawn locals, Ahern says, noting that "tourists were my gravy." The store has thrived on lottery sales, tobacco and its deli.
In 1980, the first convenient store in Madras opened a deli and went through a major remodeling project. A year later, it became the first convenient store to operate 24 hours a day and its doors have never been locked since.
On Monday, Ahern cut his final check to the 20 employees he calls "the best staff I've ever had." Each of them will be staying onboard with Shin, who is trying to make the transition as seamless as possible. The only trouble in the transition has been transferring the various licenses, which has taken more than three months and won't be fully completed until next week.
Although mom and pop shops everywhere across the country are on the decline, Ahern says his business has always remained economically viable. He says his sales have increased every year and the convenient store industry doesn't suffer when big businesses like Safeway expand.
As for future plans, Ahern says he his going to concentrate on being a good county commissioner and a full-time dad. "Eventually I'm sure I'll do something else but I want to think about it for awhile," he says.
But he'll still own Mike & JAC's Gas next door to Ahern's. He purchased the station recently but the new business sign has yet to go up. JAC's represents the initials of his three sons: Jared, Aaron and Carson.
The passing of Ahern's into new hands also ends a longtime friendly rivalry between competing civic servants.
"It's kind of the end of an era in Madras," says Mayor Rick Allen, who owns the competing Tiger Mart on the other end of town. "The Aherns -- all that they have done for the community has been great. For me, Mike's been a fun competitor. It's never been an adversarial relationship. We took care of each other when we needed something."
Says Ahern: "The competition has been spirited but fun. I'm going to miss it."