From almond flour to organic avocados, Farmhouse Market has all the staples of a natural foods store — except the cashier. Members can enter 24 hours a day via a key card and use an iPad-like tablet to check out, with video cameras on site so owners can monitor from afar.
The New Prague store specializes in locally produced organic groceries, filling a niche for customers who once drove to Burnsville or Northfield to stock up. And if successful, the market’s business model may fill another need — providing a way for small communities to sustain stores that stock fresh, local food without passing high staffing costs on to owners.
“I was so excited about this concept — this is exactly what this town needs,” said customer Linnea Hautman, who buys vegetables, meat and milk at Farmhouse Market. “This 24-hour thing, it’s very cool.”
Owners Kendra and Paul Rasmusson opened up shop last October, motivated by their own desire to eat local, organic food. Their 3-year-old daughter has epilepsy and they knew a whole-foods diet would benefit her.
Previously, the couple realized they couldn’t make enough money running a store to warrant quitting their jobs. And a survey of potential customers indicated that longer hours were essential, Kendra said.
While brainstorming, Kendra was inspired by a gym in downtown New Prague that was open to customers 24 hours a day via a key card.
“We thought: What if people paid and they got a key? What if we trusted people?” she said.
That’s how the store operates: Residents pay $99 for the first year of membership, sign a contract and receive all-hours access. Nonmembers can buy items for the same prices during the nine hours a week the store is staffed.
“We’re not following a co-op model where our members are owners but we certainly, I think, make members feel they have a stake in this place,” Kendra said.
She aimed to sign up 200 members the first year. After four months, she has 230. Business has been steady, and we haven’t even hit our peak season yet,” she said.
“I think it’s very exciting,” said John Stavig, director of the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “It’s such a powerful trend in terms of the local, fresh and healthy foods.”
When people hear how the store works, Kendra said, they inevitably ask: Aren’t you afraid people will steal from you?
While some loss is expected at any store, those worried about theft “aren’t from a small town,” said Rasmusson, a lifelong New Prague resident.
The Rasmussons, who both still work at their day jobs, faced challenges in getting the store running. Learning about licensing, inspections and other state matters has been time-consuming, she said, and it hasn’t been easy to find suppliers, since many small farms don’t advertise. Kendra e-mailed the Department of Agriculture’s list of organic farms, but even so, items like dairy products and chicken breasts have been harder to source, she said.
Last year, the Rasmussons entered Farmhouse Market in the Minnesota Cup, a competition at the Carlson School that gives cash prizes to innovative businesses. The concept made it to the semifinals, but judges said the Rasmussons should actually start the business and enter again later. Kendra said she’s trying again this spring.
Stavig, a mentor for the Minnesota Cup, said the concept has potential: “They might even be able to franchise something like this.”
Kendra Rasmusson has talked with a group that’s been trying to start a natural foods co-op in Elk River but was told they would need $3 million and 1,000 members. The group is intrigued by Farmhouse Market’s model because the Rasmussons’ investment was much lower — in the tens of thousands of dollars, she said.
When Marge Sticha, Kendra’s mom, comes in to help out, she notices how enthusiastic customers are. “It just amazes me all the people who come in, the attitude,” she said. “I think they like the feeling of belonging.”