Saving rural grocers: The answer might be “brat of the week”

LITTLE FALLS — If the question is how to save small town grocery stores in Minnesota, the 50 or so people gathered here Wednesday had a variety of answers.

In Rockford, it might be an effort to create a member-owned food co-operative.

In Pine City, it might be a leap of faith and long-term investment by the second-generation grocer in nearby Sandstone.

In Randall, it just could be the bratwurst of the week.

A rural grocery store is one more of those institutional markers that say something about the health of communities — along with the post office, the school, the city police department. When the economy, demographics and maybe Walmart dictate that it has to go, people mourn the hole created.

In a one-day conversation on the topic that the Initiative Foundation hosted, it was easy to see the problem. Consumers demand bigger stores and more items than they used to. Big-box stores buy in volume to keep prices low and draw customers from regions that once supported many stores.

My home town had four grocers in a single block of Main Street when my family moved there in 1962 and I got my first paycheck stocking shelves in one of them. There’s one left today, and in many places, the number has gone to zero. Truman, Mora and North Branch have been added to that list recently.

The solution was harder to see but here are three places people were talking about Wednesday:

–Rockford’s last grocery closed six years ago. The city, population of about 4,300 and located just northwest of the Twin Cities in Wright County, has been trying ever since to replace it. Cub, Nash Finch and every other big grocer had a different reason to be unconvinced by the city’s market analysis, said city administrator Nancy Carswell.

So she turned to the idea of a food co-op. Cooperatives are enjoying what some call a “third wave.” (The first was in northern Minnesota in the 1920s and the second was related to the natural food movement in the 1970s and 1980s.) But they’re a lot of work for a lot of people.

So far 44 people have agreed to contribute $200 to become members, but gone are the days of starting tiny. Business plans, a variety of loans, equipment and more have to be organized. “We’re very excited about it,” Carswell said. Organizers have a goal of 200 members by year’s end. Without that, it may not be able to go ahead.

–The Pine City area was home to three Nelson’s grocery stores until last year. The two in Mora and North Branch were closed, and Craig Thorvig bought the Pine City store out of foreclosure.

He runs Chris’ Food Center in Sandstone, the store his father ran before him. When he rebuilt that one in 2007, he thought about putting it on I-35 but rejected the idea. “I didn’t want to be the guy that killed downtown.” He added gas pumps and a Subway to attract customers.

In Pine City, 20 miles away and with a population of about 3,000, he’s head to head with a Super Walmart, which was the big elephant in the room Wednesday.

“It’s tough to look a customer in the eye and admit we can’t compete on some things,” Thorvig said. To him, a key is emphasizing the community connection. He urges his managers to get involved in local affairs, for example, and he tries to connect with local farmers and growers to sell their produce.

Financially, the Pine City purchase wasn’t what he hoped for at the time, but he’s still optimistic in the long run, he said.

–Randall is even smaller, population around 600. But it’s home to Gosch’s, which embodies the spirit of doing something special to keep customers coming back from far away.

“We have people from the Cities calling to see what we have for brat of the week” before heading north to the cabin, said owner Lori Mueller.

“You’re not going to find a Gosch’s hot dog in Walmart or Coborn’s,” said her husband and co-owner Denny Mueller.

That notion — doing something special, making a store a place people like to come to for meat, caramel rolls, whatever — was advice offered by many in the room.

Consultant Margaret Lund of Co-Opera Co. put the idea this way: “What do we really want? If what we want is cheap Coke and chips, then Walmart has us covered and we don’t need to have this conversation.”

At the end of the day, I decided what I really wanted was a brat of the week, so I drove 10 miles to Randall.

It was wild rice and blueberries combined with a mix of pork and beef. I bought the last five and grilled them for supper. But don’t worry, the butcher said he’d make more today.

  • Edward

    I actually laughed out loud reading this: “When the economy, demographics and maybe Walmart dictate that it has to go, people mourn the hole created.”

    There are only 2 issues: Walmart and the local people who shop Walmart and stop supporting the small, local grocer. It is ridiculous to think there is anything else involved.