Dorothy Lane Market Celebrates 70 years: Our Story

People ask what the secret sauce is to DLM. Sure, there’s that touch of gourmet in addition to the everyday infused throughout every department (and no, it wasn’t always that way). There’s the friendly carryout who knows your kid’s name and never hesitates to offer the protection of an umbrella on a rainy day. There’s also the robust network of gourmands from faraway lands and local farmers whose bounty can be found at DLM. But at the core of everything we do, there’s our history, which we hold near and dear. It’s real and rooted in humble beginnings built on friendship, hard work, and an unwavering sense of community; it’s not perfect, but it’s our history. We are proud of it and it has influenced much of who we are today, 70 years later.

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The story of DLM began even before the opening of the iconic fruit stand at the corner of Far Hills and Dorothy Lane. Imagine the Central Market House in downtown Dayton in the 1940s alive with activity as two-wheelers stacked with potatoes and heads of lettuce zip by and vendors set up their booths, such as widower Vera Pacey who sold fruit. Her four daughters would take turns waking up at 4 a.m. to get to the market on time so they could set up before their mother, who worked a night shift at Frigidaire, would take over and they had to be at school. At that same time, Calvin D. Mayne, an entrepreneur, was in the wholesale fruit and vegetable business. Calvin and Vera began a courtship and were married in 1941.

A Treasured Beginning

With a family to support and a new son, Norman, Calvin knew that he needed to get off the road, as his wholesale business often took him across the country to procure everything from fresh Georgia peaches to Florida citrus. So he parked his truck and opened up a store the size of a 7-Eleven called M&H Liberty Market with partner Tom Hildebrand. He worked thirteen days straight and would take every other Sunday off. One Sunday, a man named Frank Sakada, a former interpreter in the U.S. Navy who was working for Governor James Cox, came in and the two became fast friends, as Calvin also was a veteran who spent time in Japan. “Frank came in on Sundays and helped my dad set up the produce rack and they would shoot the breeze,” Norman says.

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From there, dreams were born for what we now know as Dorothy Lane Market. They found a site at the corner of Far Hills and Dorothy Lane with a wooden lean-to style building and opened doors to Dorothy Lane Market on August 12, 1948, along with two part-time employees, including Mary (Pacey) Hieb, Vera’s daughter, who rang up the first order. Mary continued to work for DLM over the course of several decades in various roles until she retired in 2016. Calvin soon sold his interest in M&H Liberty Market and Vera sold her fruit stand at the Central Market House the next year. They were all in.

Building Community

They were rich with determination to make it work and it did. That meant doing what other grocers wouldn’t, including staying open during a blizzard in 1950. Calvin and Frank felt a sense of duty to be there for the community, even if it meant hiking through the three-foot snowbanks by foot at 6 a.m. and then hitch-hiking once he found a few trucks on Salem Avenue. “He got to this little wooden grocery store at 8 a.m. and he opened the store. It was the only place where people could get bread, milk, and bananas,” Norman says. That night, Calvin slept in the store so that he could open again the next day until the streets were clear.

It’s moments like this in our history that weave into the very DNA of DLM. So much that when a blizzard hit Dayton again in 1978, all Norman could think about was what his father had done 28 years previously. “We couldn’t close because it was a part of our heritage from 1950 to stay open,” Norman says. “Our great customers were there for us on fair-weather days. Now, we had to be there for them on bad weather days.”

Ed Flohre, DLM VP of Human Resources, was a Dairy manager at the time and recalls about 25 associates coming together to shuttle everyone with the 4-wheel-drive trucks and Jeeps available. When staples, like milk, started to run short, they went so far as to ask Borden Dairy for a key so that they could pick up the milk directly from their facility since deliveries were halted. “I knew that we were different than most independents,” Ed says.

In 1951, a fire erupted in the building adjacent to Dorothy Lane Market causing smoke damage to the interior. Norman remembers holding a paintbrush at age 7 alongside Daryll Sakada, Frank’s son, as everyone worked tirelessly to reopen. The food was unsellable, so Calvin and Frank turned around and gave most of the food to the Kettering Fire Department and anyone else who was hungry. A reputation of DLM’s generosity and devotion to the community begin to grow.

Growth Amid Giants

A customer, Mr. Talbott, took note of DLM’s success and agreed to build a grocery store in Oakwood so that Calvin and Frank could be the tenants. So, they relocated Dorothy Lane Market in 1953 to the 10,000-square-foot space where the Oakwood store currently stands. Sales exceeded expectations by 50% and national spotlight was on Dorothy Lane Market, the independent grocery store in Ohio. DLM featured its merchandise on displays, in aisles, and in cases where people could see it. In those days, a lot of stores were afraid they’d lose money with this approach due to the risk of theft, so much of the product was kept behind counters.

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It was during these years that many of the pillars of the DLM culture took shape, such as the inception of The Good Neighbor Program upon Vera’s encouragement, associate discounts on purchases, and bonuses unheard of in the industry. When it came to standing up against the competition, Calvin went to great lengths and had a way with drumming up excitement. Hand-painted 5-by-6 foot large window signs were a chief way grocery stores communicated each week’s ad items. One advantage that DLM had was that most grocery store ads broke on Monday morning. So at midnight, Calvin would pick up a copy of the paper at the train station, which usually got the first deliveries. He had until 10 a.m. Monday to make sure his prices were better as DLM’s ad didn’t break until Wednesday morning. Trading stamps also became prevalent in many stores. “But my dad knew in order to do the stamps, you had to raise the prices. So we were the only store in town that didn’t do the trading stamps. He took the amount it would have cost and put [it] in ad markdowns,” Norman says. Pricing got so competitive in the 50s that many chains reduced the number of people who could work, but Calvin and Frank refused to. “He really felt that the people that work at the store were as important as the customer … it was the culture that he and Sakada started back in the 50s that is the culture that we still embrace today,” Norman says.

NCR took note of this success and incorporated the DLM story in their Modern Merchandising Methods seminars, which took the Mayne family around the world to speak to other retailers. In addition, Frank and Calvin were in high demand to speak at various industry events. Around 1960, Frank decided to pursue other business interests.

Surviving Tragedy, Failure

The Oakwood location continued to thrive in the years that followed. So much so DLM experimented with a location at the Page Manor Shopping Center on Airway Road, which quickly closed. There also were two larger format stores, one in Cincinnati and one in Dayton, that were purchased independent of the DLM brand. But the business model that each had in place—where many of the departments were leased—failed.

In 1966, Calvin suffered a stroke, which he never fully recovered from in the years before his death in 1972. It was on the heels of DLM’s founding father suffering this irreparable catastrophe that bankruptcy loomed. The future looked bleak. On May 4, 1967, DLM filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Once the news broke, sales plummeted. Norman, 23 years old at the time, was involved with the company as a truck driver and he ran the Produce department. With his mother’s guidance, the time had come for him to get involved at a different level. “My mom was … she was the rock,” Norman says. In the years to come, Vera would serve as president of DLM until her death in 2011 at the age of 105.

The declaration of bankruptcy put the family in danger of losing DLM. With the advice of attorney Jack Pickrel, who Norman remained close to over the years, they knew what they had to do: Offer the creditors repayment of 100 cents on the dollar over the course of 10 years, which was unheard of. The plan was accepted in June and the first payment was made in December. By 1975, DLM paid off its bankruptcy two years ahead of schedule. At last, it was in the past, but never to be forgotten.

Gourmet Revolution

In the 15 years that followed, the focus was on making DLM as great as it could be as a single-operating store. It was in this stretch of time that a gourmet revolution was happening nationally as people grew more enchanted with food thanks in large part to the explosion of food magazines and the dynamic Julia Child, who Norman had the pleasure of having dinner with along with Robert and Margrit Mondavi. In the early 80s, Kitty Sachs came to work at DLM as the Consumer Affairs Director and the gourmet revolution ignited at DLM as a larger emphasis was placed on prepared foods, fresh foods, and the idea of having a cooking school. “People were interested in food not just for sustenance but food for pleasure and entertaining,” Kitty says.

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With that, a culture of experts was born, with DLM emphasizing travel among associates to explore great food as well as opportunities to learn, and the experience at DLM has been better because of that. Wine managers were given access to an influential wine consultant to help shape the future of that department. Now, several of our wine associates have undergone rigorous testing for Certified Specialists of Wine certification. The momentum of the foodie explosion that DLM experienced in the 80s gave birth to much of what DLM is today.

The gourmet revolution continued to take shape even more once Calvin Mayne, Norman’s son, came on board in a larger capacity at DLM. “He brought a greater appreciation for great food and how it tastes even to the extent that he went to Paris and went to Le Cordon Bleu cooking school,” Norman says.

During this era, the movement toward good food grew at a faster pace, both in our culture and at our company. “We began traveling more and attending food shows, such as the Fancy Food Show, where we would find treasures from Spanish ham to Italian olive oil, French cheese, and Texas salsa,” Calvin says. DLM sought to form partnerships with those who love food as we do. “Many times these folks are found in our own backyard. In the 80s and 90s, we began making trips around the country and abroad to find producers that fit our passion for food,” Calvin says. This approach has given rise to food treasures, such as Vera Jane’s Extra-Virgin Olive oil, which hails from a family estate in Tuscany.

The Killer Brownie® Strategy

Price wars erupted in the 1980s as more big box stores came to town and it was a blood bath, so to speak, as independents had more than 50% of the market in Dayton. That changed in the 1990s, as at least 46 independents shuttered. It became more and more obvious that the only way DLM would survive would be to keep moving. “We had to create faster than they could steal,” Norman says.

This lead to many of the signature items that are mainstay favorites today, like Killer Brownie® and Heavenly Ham®. “We kept looking for items that were unique that nobody else would take the time to prepare or would want to sell. So Heavenly Ham® (1982) kind of started the whole thing. And I knew we had to do things that nobody else would be willing to do,” Norman says. “I called it the Killer Brownie® Strategy.”

Over the years, DLM defied industry norms by baking bread from scratch, making food in our own kitchens, opening grills in the Meat departments, being the first grocery store to host wine tastings, and going antibiotic and hormone free in the Meat department, decades before the rest of the industry. A “Ready. Fire. Aim.” mentality took shape and good ideas were put to the test, sometimes resulting in a home run and sometimes not. “Without being able to fail and learn, ‘ready, fire, aim’ would never have happened,” Ed says. The next few decades saw tremendous growth as new initiatives resulted from the “Ready. Fire. Aim.” approach.

In 1991, DLM Washington Square opened and everyone held their breath the first few months, but finally it took off and there was no turning back. In 1995, DLM quit advertising and launched Club DLM to reward customers, which sparked national attention. Our annual Food & Wine Show was born and was an instant hit. The Spring Fling Pastry Show and The Cheese Show also arose in years to come. In 2002, DLM Springboro opened its doors, inching DLM a bit more south. All the while during this era of growth, DLM proudly continues to add to our count of associates who have been here 25+ years (and now even 50+ years) and have helped pave the way for each and every success.

Looking back, it’s humbling to think that it all started in a lean-to piled high with ambition. “I pinch myself every day,” Norman says. “There’s been nothing revolutionary that has happened to us, it’s all evolutionary.” With that said, we are excited to celebrate our history as we embark into our 70th year, with a commitment to never lose focus on what the future can bring.