Memorial Day weekend has always been a focal point of Denny York’s career.
During his decades in the food industry, York helped Tidyman’s and Yoke’s gear up for the annual onslaught of shoppers eager to celebrate summer’s unofficial start with picnics and parties.
More recently as head of Fairmount Holdings, a division of Fairmount Memorial Association, York has helped fellow cemetery employees prepare for the tens of thousands who commemorate the holiday by visiting loved ones’ gravesites.
York’s transition from supermarkets to cemeteries is an unlikely story – as is his rise from reluctant produce department manager to senior vice president of Yoke’s Fresh Markets.
During a recent interview, York discussed his peripatetic career, and revealed the most popular of the Fairmount Association’s 200,000 graves.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
York: In Yakima. My father was a groceryman. From the time I was 8 and started cleaning floors and burning boxes, I watched him work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and said, “I don’t want to do that.”
S-R: What was your escape plan?
York: I came here to study marketing and advertising at Eastern Washington University. But when I was a senior, my dad had his second heart attack, so my wife and I moved back to Yakima to help run the store until he got back on his feet.
S-R: What did you do after your father recovered?
York: I returned to Spokane and went to work as a produce manager for Yoke’s in Deer Park.
S-R: After swearing off the profession?
York: That’s where my background was, so that’s where I could earn the most.
S-R: Then what?
York: I transferred to Low Cost on the night crew, and started teaching food marketing part time at Spokane Community College. Next I got hired by Roundup, the wholesale side of Fred Meyer, worked there for five years, and ended up as sales manager for their food service division, traveling five days a week.
S-R: Why did you leave?
York: I went into commercial real estate with a couple of fraternity brothers, thinking it was my chance to get out of the grocery business. I did that for five years, until interest rates shot up in the early ’80s and a banker suggested I get back in the grocery business before I lost everything. Coincidentally, Tidyman’s had just missed out on a site in Montana because their commercial Realtor hadn’t done a good job, and they hired me as an in-house Realtor, advertising and marketing guy. Two years later, I asked to go back to managing a store, because that’s where the money was.
S-R: How long were you there?
Yor k: Eight years. Then Yoke’s invited me back, and I managed stores for another eight years before they made me a vice president, and eventually a senior vice president. During my last 10 years at Yoke’s, I designed and built grocery stores, and that job was a dream come true.
York: WinCo came to town, and they didn’t need a high-priced guy like me. I tried retirement for 15 months and hated it. Then this job came up, and they wanted someone with a strong background in marketing, sales, advertising and branding.
S-R: How much of your food industry experience transferred over?
York: A bunch. The product is different, obviously, but just like in the grocery business we have to figure out how to say “yes” to our customers every day. We’re the largest privately owned cemetery/funeral home/crematory company in the Northwest – maybe on the whole West Coast.
S-R: What are your responsibilities?
York: Fairmount Holdings is the for-profit side of Fairmont Memorial Association. I’m in charge of three funeral homes – Heritage, at Riverside Park Cemetery, plus a North Side storefront and one in the Valley.
S-R: What’s the key to running the business successfully?
York: Empathy. It’s one thing when mom is 94 and you’re expecting it. It’s completely different when you lose a child, or a son is killed in Afghanistan. I lost a 42-year-old son a year and a half ago, so I saw firsthand how important having the right people is.
S-R: How has the industry evolved in recent years?
York: Two decades ago, cremations were 10 percent of what we did. Now they’re 50 percent. Countywide the figure is 70 percent.
S-R: What’s driving that change?
York: Partly cost, and partly a shift in attitudes. All of us are a little more green today, and we don’t want to take up as much land.
S-R: How has that trend impacted the cemetery business?
York: It’s more challenging than it was when everything was ground burial. Eighty percent of cremated remains end up in a closet or scattered somewhere. Our challenge is to teach people that memorializing their loved ones somewhere isn’t about the person who died. It’s about giving future generations a place to visit. But there are a lot of options with cremation – everything from niches to ground burial to teddy bear urns. You can even have a diamond made out of the ashes.
S-R: How would you like to be memorialized?
York: I’ve already bought a plot for my family and a cremation bench big enough to hold six people.
S-R: Is anyone buried there?
York: No. My father-in-law is still in our closet, because my wife doesn’t want to put him in the bench until her mom passes away.
S-R: How much does a cremation bench cost?
York: Anywhere from $3,500 to $36,000.
S-R: What has surprised you about this business?
York: How much it’s like any other business. But this has been a bigger challenge than I anticipated. When I took the job, a lot of our business was transacted with a good ol’ boy handshake instead of getting bids. We bid everything we buy today, because that’s the world I came from. And there’s a piece of me that will always be a groceryman.
S-R: What distinguishes Fairmount Holdings from its competition?
York: Most of the funeral homes in Spokane are nationally owned and don’t have cemeteries here. We have seven.
S-R: What’s the future of this business?
York: There will always be cemeteries. We’ve only developed 330 of our 740 acres, and just one-and-a-half acres in the past 10 years. We have so much land, we sold 10 acres near Eagle Ridge to (Gonzaga men’s basketball coach) Mark Few. That was before I got here, because I would have asked for basketball tickets.
S-R: Is Memorial Day weekend your busiest time of year?
York: By far. We fly 3,800 5-foot-by-8-foot flags in honor of veterans buried in our cemeteries, and welcome more than 40,000 visitors.
S-R: What are some etiquette tips to keep in mind?
York: We encourage people to park on one side of the road, so traffic isn’t obstructed. It’s not the best weekend to bring dogs, but if you do, keep them on a leash. And never remove flowers from another gravesite.
S-R: Your cemeteries include the graves of many notable people – Patsy Clark, the Huttons and Louis Davenport, as well as Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. Which is most popular with visitors?
York: The No. 1 gravesite, by far, belongs to the Rev. John G. Lake, an early 20th century faith healer. People actually lie on the grave, believing it has some therapeutic power. I’ve suggested we sell blankets with his name embroidered on them.