“It’s better to work twice as hard for yourself than make more money for someone else,” Hannah O’Connell said from behind the counter at the recently-opened O’Connell’s Qwick Stop. She and her husband, Preston, opened the doors to the Swan Lake convenience store July 1 and also brought much-needed fuel to the area.
The shop was dormant for four years before the O’Connells took over, forcing local residents to drive to Ferndale — 12.8 miles from the city center — to fuel up.
“People have tried to run it just as an espresso place or a deli without fuel or beer and it just hasn’t worked,” she said.
In addition to the essentials — gas, snacks and beer — the O’Connell’s brought their own flair to the shop. They’ve added a “Made in Montana” section featuring everything from aprons to fishing lures, all crafted by area residents. The couple will also be serving up pizza in the near future, thanks to Hannah’s prowess in the kitchen. She’s spent years baking pizza for her children, who are now college-aged, throughout their childhood. The O’Connells currently take to-go orders, and are waiting on some electrical work and an inspection before they can serve in-house.
As for the recipe? It’s a secret.
“The recipe’s here,” Hannah said, pointing to her head. “So if I die, he’s screwed.”
She smiled and continued typing away on her laptop.
The O’Connell’s never planned to own a convenience store — both Hannah and Preston made comfortable livings as managers at an auto dealership. But the money came with drawbacks: As managers, they weren’t permitted to leave the store at the same time, so family vacations were virtually nonexistent.
They also had their 2-year-old son Jackson to think about and decided a change was in order.
The O’Connells knew they didn’t want to leave Northwest Montana, so the couple began looking at hotels and gas stations before stumbling upon the vacant c-store in Swan Lake.
“We just decided that our quality of life would be better even though we’re going to work harder and make a lot less money,” she said.
Although they both had experience leading businesses — Hannah once managed a gas station, to boot — getting off the ground wasn’t easy.
“None of the pumps worked, the coolers didn’t work and it was all empty, so we started from the ground up,” Hannah said.
The lone, functioning piece of equipment was an ice chest.
“The ice chest sat out in the elements unused, he hit it with the U-Haul when we moved in and that was the only thing in this entire store that worked,” Hannah said.
Slowly but surely, things came together.
They fixed what didn’t work, implemented new things as they went along and perhaps most importantly, they did it all together.
“He can be here with us now,” Hannah said, looking at her son, who was happily opening and closing her laptop, pacifier in mouth.
“It’s all our ideas. Before, I felt like I had really good ideas, but there’s always someone that can tell you yay or nay,” she said. “Now it’s like, who do I ask if I want to have a made-in-Montana section? That’s right — me!”
As for the future? Hannah said she and Preston are hoping to utilize the rear of the building, which is equipped with booth seating and a pool table.
“We’re hoping to draw the family crowd,” she added. “If it’s raining, people come up from the campground or in the winter, shoot a little pool.”
This summer, they’re just focused on getting the word out.
The pumps are running and judging by the ebb and flow of cars outside, people are beginning to take notice.
“We just want to keep it open and provide this service for the community,” Preston said.