Rural Minn. dies a little when small grocers close

Back in my dying hometown, the Facebook posts continue to blame city officials for the near-empty Main Street which was thriving once upon a time when the factories were open and shopping malls hadn’t yet come to the region. But come to the region they did and when people had a choice of where to shop, they abandoned the downtown for the outskirts of town.

So who is responsible for what happened?

All across Minnesota, rural grocery stores are holding out against the choices people make.

In tiny Truman, Minn., Nick Graham, then a young man, got plenty of national attention for keeping a grocery store open. He thought a small grocery could give a town what small groceries give towns — a sense of community.

The grocery is gone now and it isn’t because the people of Truman stopped eating food.

Just 19 minutes away from downtown Truman is a Walmart Supercenter and nobody shops there at gunpoint.

When I was in Montevideo, Minn., for a story a few years ago, Bill Pauling, owner of Bill’s Supermarket was proudly pointing out the value of his in-town grocery. “People shop there to run into the other people who are shopping there,” he said.

Driving out of town that day, I noticed that the Walmart parking lot was packed.

When I visited with the guys in the “Last Man Club” in Luverne, Minn., a couple of years ago, we met at Glen’s Bakery & Deli, a community treasure if ever there was one. It’s not hard to find the owner. He’s the one delivering cake to the guys.

You could probably drive to Worthington, Minn., and shop the big-box grocery, but you can’t get what Glen gives at the big-box grocery.

The same is true in Clinton, Minn., where I met Brent Olson, who was starting up a community kitchen and hoping that Bonnie’s Hometown Grocery could hang on. At last check, it’s still there in the face of the odds stacked against it.

“First, small-town grocery stores have a horrible time competing,” Olson told me then. “They can’t buy a truckload of lettuce. If they buy a case, they throw half of it out,” he says. “Older people who aren’t mobile have a hard time getting a good diet, with fresh stuff. There’s a lack of interesting food, and if you want to get started farming around here and you don’t want to farm 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans, it’s difficult to make a living. You’ll never make a living with a farmer’s market in Clinton. Only 400 people live here and half of them have gardens.”

Last year, a Kickstarter campaign saved the store for owner Bonnie Carlson when a freezer gave out and she couldn’t afford to fix it.

Clinton is in Big Stone County, where for years Kathryn Draeger documented the struggles of small towns on her Resettling Big Stone County blog. It’s gone now.

Draeger, the statewide director of the Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, is co-author of a report this month that is dreary in every way on the topic of small-town groceries.

The majority of those grocery owners surveyed said they intend to be in the business for fewer than 10 years. Most have no plan to hand the business to someone else. Most of their buildings are old and in need of significant repair.

The biggest challenge they face is the big discount grocery 20 or so miles away in many cases, the report said.

Ten percent of those surveyed cited a lack of community support as the most challenging problem.

But community support is a big problem because given the choice of everything a community grocery store brings and the lower price, perhaps bigger selection, of the big chain, people chose the big chain. Or, more accurately, they decided whatever the town grocery provided a town, it wasn’t worth doing their part to keep it.

Part of this is due to the aging and subsequent dying of residents of small-town Minnesota; part is due to generations who’ve grown up thinking there’s no consequence to their shopping decisions.

That’s a shame, as I’ve realized over the years as more and more of my interviews with people around the state (and, admittedly, I don’t get out as much anymore) occur in the town grocery store because the town grocery is the community.

My hometown isn’t coming back and the chances are neither is the grocery store in Truman, or Aurora, Minn., where Zup’s Food Market gave up in January and where some excitement came this week when Kwik Trip announced it’ll build a convenience store there.

An identity of a community should matter more to people, just as it should have mattered to my old hometown when caring could still have made a difference.

  • KTN

    Last week we went to the city council meeting in Silver Bay where we have a place (no, the beer thing was not on the menu that day), but what was on the menu was the approval of a Dollar General store getting the nod to build in the “eco park” just across 61 from town. We were the only people who actually voiced an opinion (we are not in favor even though it would bring in much needed tax dollars). The local Zup’s didn’t show up, nor the hardware store. I can only think what will happen when people start using the Dollar store for their groceries, and Zup’s closes yet another store. The city manager was surprised by our take, and I can only assume thinking we were bringing our city values to their little town. Sad really.

    • Jeff C.

      That is sad. Maybe sometimes people don’t realize what they have until it is gone. Zup’s potato sausage is great. Small locally-owned stores are even better!

      • MrE85

        I love Zups! My wife and I make a point of shopping there whenever we can.

  • Joe

    And those Walmart’s often get a gigantic hidden subsidy from the town/county. The town will build water services, and roads, and other infrastructure out to the edge of town so Walmart can build their store. Then in 30 years (if the town is lucky), Walmart leaves, and the town is on the hook for all repairs to the aging infrastructure, plus an old useless big box store.

    Meanwhile, that little grocery store on Main Street provides more tax revenue per acre than the Walmart, requires no new infrastructure, and is often a repurposable building.

    So while the community part is the most painful, for sure, it doesn’t even make sense from a long-term financial perspective.

  • Lindsey

    The grocery store in my hometown closed. And then the bowling alley. And then the nursing home.

  • Greg W

    In my hometown, the family-owned, local grocery store opened a newer, larger building at great expense only to have a Coborn’s Superstore move in across the street. All the talk of supporting local families and businesses were abandoned with the “pretty good deals”.

  • Gary F

    It’s not just the little towns, you need to start making those choices in the city and suburbs.

    Do you shop at Ace/TrueValue/HardwareHank first? or Menards/HD/Lowes?

    Same goes for groceries and lots of other stuff.

    • Jeff C.

      Pharmacies, too. Locally owned? Brick and mortar? Mail order?

      • Gary F

        Yep, how much from Amazon Plus?

    • I love the local Ace hardware (remember how one put one out of business in Brattleboro, VT?). My plan when I retire is to go work in an Ace hardware.

      • Gary F

        I could talk about faucet stems, GFI outlets, and sandpaper all day.

    • Al

      It’s 100% true, even in first-ring suburbs. Though it has to go both ways a bit–These smaller stores have to work a bit to adapt to our new, instant economy, or carve out a unique niche in the market.

      Our corner grocery store is working pretty hard to retain customers and bring in new–better produce, request forms for products, social media. It’s made me stop there a lot more often (though, for this millennial, sometimes the prices at Target are just what we can afford, which is frustrating).

      • Mary Brown

        What would make sense for small towns is a grocery coop where combines buying power could bring prices down. Sure you might have to buy a case of something but what the heck, stick it in the pantry!

        • Al

          Some of us don’t have rooms in our pantry for a lot of stock. 🙁

          • Mary Brown

            10 5 gallon buckets stacked anywhere will hold a 6 month supply of basics for 2 people. Beans, rice, sugar, stash some gallon jugs of cooking oil… canned tuna, canned meats, it really doesn’t take up much space. One closet.

          • Al

            …like I said, some of us don’t have room for that. And would need to feed more than two people. So.

  • crystals

    Happy to report that Glen’s in Luverne is still going strong. I think Sioux Falls cuts into business more than Worthington, but with each being ~30 minutes away most things in town have been able to hold on fairly well (and now there’s even a new hotel and a second upscale restaurant!). Luverne definitely benefits from the interstate and state park in terms of travelers coming through.

    Still, every time I visit I do my very best to spend a healthy chunk of change at local businesses around town. Some of the best dollars I ever spend.

  • Jeff

    Umm…. Much as I love the small, local businesses, it could be a lot of people (especially in rural areas) are very price-sensitive and they don’t have money to throw around. Saving the local business is a luxury they can’t afford. It’s also a matter of convenience to pick up a hammer and groceries at the Walmart and we all seem to be busy these days watching cat videos or whatever.

  • lindblomeagles

    I don’t know how old many of your readers are Bob, but I’m in mid-life now, and I’ve noticed a change in cities too. Like rural communities, cities used to have small, privately owned, neighborhood Convenience Stores where adults could run in quick and buy a last minute item or two, and kids walking home from school, which is what I did from K-8, could buy some candy or play an arcade game. But BRAND NAMES, which had started to become a big thing about the mid to late 70s, started overtaking the market place, most notably Coca Cola and Pepsi, who featured former Pittsburgh and Dallas Cowboys professional football players in their television advertisements. You might remember this too Bob. All gas stations used to have pumps and a service garage. But, they got smart and began attaching small grocery areas where the “garage’ used to be. Even here in Saint Paul, grocery stores are becoming monumental chains. When I arrived in 1988, Midway had three main stores, Montgomery Wards, Target, and Rainbow Foods, the metro regional grocery store. Today, Rainbow is OWNED by Cub — the same Cub that pushed out smaller grocery stores in my hometown beginning in the 1980s. Cub Foods is now in one of Wards’ old spot, along with Wal-Mart (who sells food). Not to be out-done, Target added a grocery section too, giving Midway 3 CHAINED grocery stores.

  • Angry Jonny

    Jim’s Grocery in Brooten closed up last year after 2 generations. It was a major inconvenience to the fixed income seniors who don’t want to drive to Willmar to shop, or can’t drive. It was also the end of the fresh-that-day meat counter. What I love about small towns; I can go to the bakery and get buns baked that day, and get ground beef that’s just hours old, and make some of the best burgers you’ll ever eat.

    • Tim

      You can get that in the city, too, if you know where to go.

  • Mike Worcester

    When the small town stores cannot even buy product for what larger stores sell it for (thanks to the beauty of bulk pricing — easier to sell a pallet of Coke than just a few cases a week), it’s hard for any grocer to maintain the small margins needed to keep the doors open and the shelves full.

    • John

      most big stores sell Coke/Pepsi as a loss leader to get people in the doors. But yes, your overall point is totally correct and applies to almost everything else.

  • ec99

    So, what to do? Government protectionism? North Dakota has a pharmacy law which keeps Walmart, Target, Walgreens from setting up shop, all to save Ole and Lena’s corner store.

    • Recognize the consequences of our shopping decisions and then accept them.

    • Al

      And believe me, on those trips to small towns in North Dakota, I’d really prefer to have a pharmacy that can be open more than just 9 to 5. It can be pretty rough when you’re in a bind, need something urgently, and the pharmacy in town is closed.

  • John

    The problem with all this is that really, nobody cares. I mean, people care, but then they go shop at Walmart, Target, Home Depot, etc. So, they care, in the same way that clicking “like” on a facebook post (or posting on a message board) solves the problem – it doesn’t. They care up until the wallet comes out, and then they decide that caring is too expensive. I do it too.

    I love the hardware store down the street from my house. I go there relatively often for small things, but I also know I’m paying about a 50% premium for the same product compared to the Menards that’s just as close in the opposite direction, but sucks to shop in because it’s so big, and largely staffed by people who don’t know stuff (HD does a lot better on that front).

    If I’m making a bigger purchase, say a grill, I’m heading over to HD/Menards, because while I can swallow that extra 50% on $10-$15 purchases without too much hassle – I have an awfully hard time justifying to myself why I would pay $450 rather than $300 for the same grill (maybe the margins get closer on high dollar items – I haven’t made any big purchases that are comparable between the two types of store in a long time, but this is an example of the thought process that I follow). For things like snowblowers and lawn mowers, I’m more likely to pay the premium (depending on how big it is), because the hardware store stands behind what they sell better than the big box, and these things have more maintenance and repair likelihood than a grill.

    We all make decisions based on our own self interest. Typically, in our own short term self interest. It may well prove to be that picking Menards over the hardware store is a bad idea long term, but I believe it’s pretty well documented that people will take $50 now over some vague long term benefit just about every time.

    For what it’s worth, I have found that Walmart’s “low prices” are universally not worth it to me. For lack of a better term, the immediate “experience” of shopping at Walmart was so miserable that I haven’t been in one for over 6 years now, and my quality of life has not suffered one bit for it.

    • Joe

      Do you really have a 50% premium on $300 items? The local Ace hardware by me (38th & Nicollet) is usually within 5% on most things, and the bigger things are even closer.

      • John

        I don’t know.

        That’s why I said, “maybe the margins get closer on high dollar items – I haven’t made any big purchases that are comparable between the two types of store in a long time, but this is an example of the thought process that I follow”

        • Joe

          But you said “If I’m making a bigger purchase, say a grill, I’m heading over to
          HD/Menards, because while I can swallow that extra 50% on $10-$15
          purchases without too much hassle – I have an awfully hard time
          justifying to myself why I would pay $450 rather than $300 for the same
          grill” so I assumed you had done this at least once. Otherwise it’s more just a “If I’m making a bigger purchase, say a grill, I’m heading over to
          HD/Menards, because of made up reasons”

          • John

            Not intended as made up reasons. Intended to illustrate the thought process.

            I most likely wouldn’t even bother to look at the local HW store for a higher cost item, because my experience with dozens of purchases there has taught me that I’m going to pay significantly more for this same item at the hardware store than I am at a big box store.

            I have not purchased a big item that’s sold at both places in a long time. I have priced several things (grills, snowblowers, lawnmowers, tools, etc.) at both places, and the prices at the hardware store are consistently higher. Since it’s often not a direct “same model” comparison, I can’t say whether there’s more quality in the hardware store brands.

          • Joe

            Fair enough. Thanks for the explanation.

  • Leann Olsen

    I know I keep banging on about North Minneapolis, but this is a problem here too not just in rural MN or suburbs. Kowalski’s ambitiously opened a store in the Camden neighborhood that died quickly and has not been revived for 10 years.Another group is talking about it opening again, a 4.5 million dollar project I believe I read on Inside Northside, but I have my doubts. There wasn’t even a Walmart open when that store failed and the Brooklyn Center parking lot is always full. Will people support a store that didn’t make it before? I feel pessimistic about it. My own family makes fun of me for boycotting companies like Walmart and Amazon, but I’ve lived in a small town and I’ve seen first hand the damage these places can do. I sincerely hope that the shopping choices I make will make a difference in the long run, but I feel like a tiny minority.

  • Mary Brown

    The biggest part of the problem stems from the pricing and wage stagnation(or actual negative wages as businesses close). When the local store was open I would often grab a case of this or that at Walmart because it was cheaper than her wholesale pricing from the suppliers. And as people wages have been squeezed by rising prices, lost jobs and new jobs that pay far less they have less to spend so every dollar has to to count. If I can buy 3 cans of soup versus 1 can at the local store and I am on social security guess which one makes the most economic sense? Now extend that to those fighting to survive on welfare and unemployment…

    It is not a sense of lost community, it is simple economic survival! If I didn’t garden and grow 2/3 or more of my own vegetables(in spite of a bad back that has crippled me, I deal with extreme pain to eat well!) I would be struggling to survive!

  • PaulK

    And this just posted from KTTC in Rochester:
    The grocery is in Lanesboro, which may be the only reason it can survive being in a small town. The neighboring towns mostly have small grocery stores which just keep out of the red.