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Museum Musings: Whistler’s first full-service grocery store

'It is rare any event goes exactly according to plan...'
The Willoughby family checks out the new Grocery Store, where empty gaps in the shelves show that some goods are missing.

It is rare any event goes exactly according to plan—no matter how much you might attempt to expect the unexpected, there is almost always something that comes up. This was certainly the case for the opening of the Whistler Grocery Store, Whistler’s first dedicated supermarket, in January 1981.

The Grocery Store was scheduled to open on Thursday, Jan. 22, 1981. At the time, there were few businesses open in Whistler Village and, while the buildings around Village Square were recognizable to those familiar with the Village today, many of the other buildings were still under construction or yet to be started. The Blackcomb Lodge, the first major lodging to open in the Village, opened Dec. 29, 1980, and its restaurant Russell’s opened in January, though the Brass Rail Lounge in the same building was still unfinished. Tapley’s Pub was also slated to open in January, followed by Stoney’s Restaurant the following month.

Delays to the various openings in the Village started in December, when it began to rain on Dec. 24 and kept raining. By Dec. 26, flooding was occurring around the Lower Mainland and other areas of British Columbia, and Highway 99 was washed out around Culliton Creek and north of the Rutherford Creek junction, cutting Whistler off from the rest of the Sea to Sky. The road reopened by the beginning of 1981, but closed again on Jan. 21 when the detour around the Culliton Creek wash out was itself washed out.

The rain also caused problems on the mountains, particularly on Blackcomb, which had only begun operating Dec. 4. Higher elevations had good skiing, and both mountains worked hard to make snow when possible, and move it around in order to get skiers to the lifts, but there was very limited terrain, and long lines to download each afternoon (Blackcomb reportedly even began handing out lemonade to those waiting to download Lift 2). Whistler Mountain was able to continue operating in a limited capacity, but Blackcomb temporarily shut down operations and laid off staff.

Both the Blackcomb Lodge and Tapley’s Pub delayed their opening for a few days to a week because of the weather and road closures. The Grocery Store’s manager, Ted Pryce-Jones, however, decided to open as scheduled on Thursday, Jan. 22, though not exactly as planned.

According to the Whistler Question, Pryce-Jones decided to open “when it became apparent that the Whistler and Pemberton residents were in danger of running out of certain foodstuffs.” Even though the Grocery Store had no fresh meat or produce, residents “flooded” the store to buy milk, bread, cereal, and other foods. In order to meet the demand for milk, Pryce-Jones organized daily Dairyland deliveries by rail, which also supplied restaurants and other goods. Deliveries were limited by the availability of freight space, and by the time the highway reopened on Monday, Jan. 26, the Grocery Store and other stores that carried food had run out of fresh produce and milk.

Because of the lack of supply, Pryce-Jones decided to delay the Grocery Store’s Grand Opening Sale until they could restock, but the store did offer various “In Store Specials.” By the end of the month, regular deliveries had resumed, and the Grocery Store did very good business, especially in fresh produce, where Pryce-Jones reported “people buying the vegetables and fruit almost as fast as it could be put out.”

The store was open seven days a week and, perhaps unsurprisingly, was busiest between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m., when skiers came down from the mountains (it did begin snowing by the end of the month).

The Grocery Store was able to offer its Grand Opening Sale from Feb. 5 to 8, just a little later than expected, and continued to be busy as the only full-service grocery store in Whistler. Despite a somewhat shaky start, the Grocery Store continues to operate today out of the same space in the Hearthstone building more than 40 years later