PINE RIDGE, S.D. — After having to drive about 45 minutes to buy groceries for the past few months, Donna Dubray was first in line for the grand opening of Pine Ridge's sole grocery store last week.
"I'm excited to see what's in there, how it's made, what it all consists of, prices," the 58-year-old said of Buche Foods.
A few spots behind her in line was 5-year-old Moses and his grandmother, Melissa Zephier, who brought her hand-written shopping list. Zephier, 53, said she was looking for items that included eggs, yogurt, vegetables, snacks and birdseed.
Dubray and Zephier were two of the dozens of people who poured into Buche Foods, a family-owned company with South Dakota stores in Mission, Wagner and Gregory.
Last November, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council voted to award the contract for the grocery store to Buche Foods, replacing a company that had run the Sioux Nation Shopping Center since it opened about 50 years ago.
"In my opinion, the community has been without a fully stocked grocery store since the holidays in 2018," when Sioux Nation stopped re-stocking some food, said RF Buche, president of Buche Foods.
On Jan. 22, Buche Foods began busing people twice a day, Monday through Friday, to a grocery store in Martin, about 45 minutes from Pine Ridge. Sioux Nation officially closed in early February and Buche Foods was allowed to begin renovations March 12. Buche Auto Parts opened March 25, and the hardware and grocery stores opened earlier this month.
While some residents took advantage of the shuttles to Martin during the store closure, others schlepped to another grocery store themselves. No grocery store in Pine Ridge meant spending more on gas bills, said Dubray, who drove across the Nebraska border to Chadron, to Rapid City, South Dakota, or "wherever you could get the best deals." Other shoppers said they made the trip to Gordon, Nebraska, about 40 minutes from Pine Ridge.
Buche said his team worked as quickly as it could to reopen the store. "What we've accomplished in 27 days is unheard of, and we've done it through blizzard, flooding."
"The whole building was gutted and everything was replaced," said Marla Underbaggage, a custodian who's worked at the Pine Ridge grocery store for more than a dozen years. It's a "complete makeover."
Underbaggage, 54, was among those to shake hands with each customer as they were let into the store at 11 a.m. and greeted by staff wearing bright-red shirts with the Oglala Sioux Tribe flag, as well as drummers and singers.
Inside, the customers found a store with new flooring, paint, refrigerators and decor. Areas are labeled in English and Lakota.
"This is a community store and it just brings two cultures together," Buche said of the bilingual signage.
New products include organic produce, food for people with diabetic and gluten-free diets, TVs, gift cards, microwaves, lottery tickets, and T-shirts celebrating Lakota culture, people and schools.
The $2 million worth of renovations was completed by the Buche Foods team, local contractors and a refrigeration company, Buche said. Most Sioux Nation employees were re-hired by Buche, given a 4% raise and allowed to carry over their years of service for insurance purposes.
Tina Bettelyoun, 51, said she ended up buying "more than I needed" at the store. "There's a bigger selection, it's just really a nice store. It's like being in Chadron or Rapid City."
Bettelyoun and her 22-year old daughter, Talon, said the food prices are cheaper at Buche Foods, and there are new products, such as pre-cut fruit.
Beau Big Crow, 36, walked out of the store carrying bags full of Wheaties boxes covered in photos of local basketball teams. The news that Buche Foods had the special cereal boxes "leaked out" on social media, said Big Crow, whose son, Beau Jr., plays on the Red Cloud team.
Big Crow said he hopes to return to buy the new organic and health foods.
"It's a big step from what it used to be," he said of Pine Ridge's new grocery store.
"I have always believed that this community deserves better," Buche said.