The small town that saved its only grocery store - by buying it

The small town that saved its only grocery store – by buying it

In the closing days of May 2020, residents of Erie, Kansas, received a letter in the mail from their city government. The envelope contains self-guided only one question: “Do you support buying the City of Erie Stub’s Market?”

It was a difficult moment for residents Erie, a city of about a thousand people in southeastern Kansas. COVID-19 was rampant, essential household items and food products were out of stock, and stop market – The only grocery store in town – was on the verge of closing permanently.

This would have left Erie with only Dollar General, a chain store with a poor selection of fresh produce and foods. To find fresh meat and vegetables, residents—many of whom don’t own cars—had to travel 10 to 20 miles outside of town.

Therefore, the city council decided that it would do almost anything to keep the only grocery store open.

In the following weeks, responses to the survey began pouring into Erie City Council. 311 families in Erie responded. Of these, the vast majority, 213 people (68.5%), vote yes.

What followed is a rare achievement of community activism. To prevent the closure of the Stub Market, the city government decided to buy it.

How did Eri get her grocery store

Airy has all the quirky charm one might expect in a small Central American town.

Its main attractions include a park with dinosaurs made of unwanted minerals and the public library. Each July, it hosts an annual Soldiers’ Gathering where residents cook beans in cast iron pots over open fires, watch fireworks, and enjoy antique cars.

At one time, Erie had a thriving farming community. But today, the basic industry of the city has largely disappeared.

“There really aren’t a lot of good jobs here,” Julie KentThe director of the Erie Public Library said: crowd.

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Although some agricultural jobs still exist, many people drive out of town to work, often to an aircraft parts manufacturer in the nearby town of Chanute.

Main Street in Erie, Kansas, circa 1906 (Kansas Historical Society)

Like many other small towns, Erie’s population has dwindled in conjunction with the decline of agriculture. Between 1980 and 2020, the official number of chiefs in the borough decreased by 26% to 1,047 residents.

This population collapse had ripple effects on local businesses in the city. As the customer pool for the service shrank, local stores struggled to turn a profit.

This was especially true for Erie Grocery Stores.

The first warning signs appeared in 2012, when the city’s only grocery store, G&W Foods, suddenly closed Because she was losing a lot of money.

For two months, Erie didn’t have a single grocery store. Residents who could not get out of the city relied on frozen meals from the public dollar. Suddenly getting fresh fruit and vegetables depends on knowing someone who can deliver it to them.

The city convinced Stub’s Market, which previously occupied the site, to reopen its store before the end of the year.

It worked, but only for a few years. The owners of Stub’s were looking to retire, and they couldn’t run Erie’s grocery store much longer. In late 2010, they put their shop up for sale – but no one was willing to buy it.

Stub’s Market, Erie’s only grocery store at the time (Facebook)

It was an intractable problem Cindy SchoenhoferErie’s treasurer, learned quickly.

Schoenhofer, who works part-time in the city and part-time as a controller at a local nursing home, knew Erie could not afford to let Stub’s Market go. Losing a grocery store could lead to much worse problems in the future. If there is no place in the city to buy products, then future residents may not move there.

“Like all small towns, if you lose your school, you kind of lose your town,” Schoenhofer said. “Grocery store is similar. If you lose that, you won’t have people shopping in town.”

Finally, in August 2019, Sherlyn MahornOne of the owners of Stub’s Market, he met With Erie City Council to discuss a bold proposal.

Rather than waiting for a private buyer to materialize, I asked, What if the city bought the store?

America’s Rural Grocery Problem

Across the United States, countless rural cities face the same dilemma as Erie. Between 1990 and 2015, Non-metro rural counties lost 39% From their grocery storesAccording to a report from the US Department of Agriculture.

The main problem lies in the fact that grocery stores operate on very thin margins, especially in rural areas.

A 2020 survey of Minnesota grocery stores in towns with fewer than 2.5 thousand people found that the average profit was fair. 1.1%. This means that even the slightest change — inflation, for example, or rising costs from supply chain delays — can quickly wipe out any profits.

Even the biggest chains, like Kroger, earn just over 2 cents for every dollar spent, but they can offset that with their sales volume. Small town stores don’t have that luxury.

Rural grocery stores face challenges across the US (top: Historic Rabbit Hash General Store in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky; Jim Lane/Getty Images; bottom: Squam Lake Inn and Marketplace, Holderness, NH; Jumping Rocks/Getty Images)

Lots of broader trends are forcing independent grocery stores to close, too:

1. Dollar Stores and Superintendents

Share of groceries in rural independent Drops From 87% to 82% thanks to the supermarket crawl.

With the disappearance of independent grocery stores, super centers have taken their place: The USDA has found 237% increase in the number of super-centers in these rural counties between 1990 and 2015. But many of these stores, especially dollar stores, do not have fresh food.

2. Population migration

Between 2010 and 2020, the number of Americans living in rural areas decreased by 0.6%.

“When there are fewer people in the city, you have fewer people who can support this business,” he said. Erica Blairprogram director of the Rural Grocery Initiative, a group that has also advised Erie.

3. Succession crises

In Kansas, the average grocery store owner is 57 yearsto me Justin CarterSenior Project Manager at the Center for Rural Affairs, “They are having a lot of difficulties finding new owners.”

The failure to secure a new generation of owners, Carter says, has caused many rural grocery stores to close. “You face a situation where the current group of shopkeepers retire and no one takes over the shop.”

To prevent their stores from closing, some communities implement a range of creative solutions:

  • Community Owned Stores: When Hay Springs, Nebraska (population 600) lost its only grocery store in 2019, local advocates started brochures To persuade residents to buy the store as a group. The family farm cooperative opened in 2021.
  • Self Service Stores: In Evansville, Minnesota (about 700 residents), residents had to do this drive 40 miles To get a lot of groceries. A couple opened Main Street Market, a 24-hour self-service grocery store that can be accessed annually Subscription $75 / year.
  • Partnership between the public and private sector: Often times, cities may agree to cover the rent of a grocery store to help it cut costs. In West Baltimore, for example, the non-profit grocery store Fresh at the Avenue operates from a City owned building.

Scenes from Erie, KS (Julie Kent)

Erie’s approach — to turn her grocery store into a publicly funded enterprise — is far less common.

But it is certainly not a stand-alone case.

St Paul’s model

When the city of Erie was considering proposing to buy Stub’s Market, the first thing Schoenhofer did was reach out to Erie’s neighbor: St. Paul, Kansas (pop. 543).

St. Paul is one of the only other places in the country – along Baldwin Market in Baldwin, Florida (population: approximately 1.5 thousand) and Kanye Market (pop: about 1.8k) In Kanye, KS – This accomplished what Airy was trying to do.

The history of the story of Saint Paul dates back to 2005, when his name was mentioned Rick Jeffer had become mayor.

The city hasn’t had a large-scale grocery store since 1985, and Jeff decided to change that. In 2008, he used city funding to create a new store, Saint Paul’s Supermarket, off the ground. In 2013, as the couple who run the store were staring at retirement, Jeff convinced the city to buy it on the spot.

In 2019, Schoenhofer drove to St. Paul to meet with a city clerk who gave her some advice. Schoenhofer found that the experiment was a success. St. Paul Grocery employs about 15 people and generates a profit of 3%Slightly better than average for country grocery stores.

It also kept people – and money spending – in the city. Likewise, in Erie, residents come to Erie Market for fresh lunches, such as a roast pork sandwich or a taco at Taco Tuesday.

Other positive developments followed. Erie just opened a new daycare center, a new restaurant, and a new coffee shop. “Once the ball started rolling, we started making people say, OK, we can do it and we can do it,” Kent said.

By the fall of 2020, after collecting feedback from residents, the City of Erie agreed to purchase Stub’s Market. the cost: 300 thousand dollarsplus inventory cost (about US$100,000) and a 0.5% reduction for previous store owners over the next 10 years – in total, less than ~500 thousand dollars.

At the beginning of 2021, the city became the official owner of the shop. The city council renamed it Erie MarketI hired an experienced retail manager to run the store on behalf of the city.

Erie’s only grocery store survives – with a new name (Julie Kent)

To date, the City of Erie has taken a hands-off approach to managing the Erie Market. The store manager submits a monthly report to the city on finances. Eri will only intervene if he slips into the red zone.

“We run it as a utility, like we do with the electric bill and the water bill,” Schoenhofer said. Just like the water bill, if the store’s operating costs go up, Erie will add a small amount – less than $5 per month On a utility bill for each resident to compensate for the difference.

Erie hasn’t yet had to, but rising inflation is making the city council nervous. Food suppliers at Erie Market charge more for wholesale orders, and the store passes on some of the increased cost to customers.

But when it comes to inflation, running a store as a public facility has a positive side. According to Schoenhofer, the city council is looking into reducing the price he adds to the groceries he sells.

After all, the Erie market needs to break even, not make a huge profit. Its first priority is getting residents to the door.

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