CLINTON, Minn. – The plight of Bonnie’s Hometown Grocery grew dire when the store’s big freezer kept frosting over and breaking down. Owner Bonnie Carlson couldn’t afford to fix it.
But her customers, and even a few strangers, didn’t want another small grocery store to close. So to pay for a new, eight-door freezer, more than 75 of them pledged $18,000 through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.
“I was amazed,” Carlson said of donations that came from across the country and “from people I had no clue even who they were.”
That’s quite a feat in a small city like this one, pop. 450, as grocery stores’ thin margins get squeezed by rising energy costs and their customers’ willingness to drive farther to work and shop. Between 2000 and 2013, outstate Minnesota lost 14 percent of its grocery stores, according to the Center For Rural Policy and Development in Mankato.
The closures have made getting fresh food harder — especially for older residents, who make up a bigger share of many rural communities’ populations and who might not drive, said Marnie Werner, the center’s research director. It’s also tough on a small city’s identity, she said.
“Oh, there goes another town institution,” she said. “They lost their school, and now they’re losing their grocery store.”
Some towns are fighting the trend. A few years after Dave’s Family Foods shuttered in nearby Kerkhoven, a regional development group backed the recent opening of Lamecker’s General Store, which sells meat and vegetables. A group in Kiester, Minn., southwest of Albert Lea, raised more than $65,000 to reopen its grocery store with a new tagline: “Proud to be community owned.”
Backers know that a small-town grocery store is about more than food.
On a recent afternoon in Clinton, Ginny Stattelman grabbed a cart and gave Carlson a smile.
“Hey Ginny,” Carlson called.
“Your float was the nicest one in the parade,” Stattelman replied.
Carlson, 48, knows not only the name of each person who stops in Bonnie’s Hometown Grocery but also their weekly staples and cuts of meat. She special-orders their popcorn, asks about their ailing family members and creates a float for the annual Clinton Days parade.
‘A little hope’
Despite being in the heart of farm country, much of Big Stone County, where Clinton sits, counts as a rural food desert under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition, meaning that many residents must drive 10 miles or more to a big grocery store.
Inner-city kids and farm kids “have more in common with each other than suburban kids,” said Brent Olson, a county commissioner. “They’re living out of convenience stores.”
When Olson was growing up, Clinton was home to two grocery stores. His dad, a farmer who’s now 89, encouraged him “to do something to keep Bonnie’s open.” So three years ago, Olson got a Bush Fellowship to reopen a Main Street eatery, now called the Inadvertent Cafe, buying his ingredients from Bonnie’s, for about $1,000 a month. The plan also called for creating a food hub, offering farmers and gardeners a certified spot to offer products that Bonnie’s could sell.
So far, the cider brewed there was a big hit. Sauerkraut, now on her shelves, is picking up.
“I don’t know how much I’m helping her,” Olson said. “But I’m thinking it’s giving her a little hope.”
Carlson switched on the bandsaw the other day, slicing pork steaks and country-style ribs. The old saw might be the one thing that doesn’t need replacing, she said, laughing.
“This one’s loud and noisy,” she said, “but I know how it works, and I haven’t cut my finger off yet.”
A longtime employee wrapped and weighed the meat, setting it in a case. Running a small grocery means predicting how much will sell, customer by customer, careful to order less organic milk when the family that drinks most of it goes on vacation.
Carlson orders largely based on what her distributor, Mason Brothers, has on sale. Those prices, she argues, compare with her competition in bigger cities. The register has no scanner, so she wallpapers the check-out with the weekly ads, punching in the prices.
Mason Brothers — which serves 400 stores in six states — started an in-house bakery and began cutting meat to better serve groceries that can no longer employ a baker or butcher, said Murlyn Kreklau, sales manager. The Wadena-based company offers free planning services to stores that want to build or remodel and counsels owners about how to increase sales.
Such services “probably go beyond the norm,” he said, to help rural grocery stores. “I have community groups call me every week … hoping they can do something to keep a store in town.”
Fifteen years ago, the president of Clinton State Bank, Sevrin Steen, stopped by Carlson’s house with an urgent plea: The grocery store was on the brink of closure. “And I think you would be the perfect owner,” Steen recalls saying.
After running a convenience store and managing a bar, Carlson was ready for a new challenge and earlier hours, giving her more time with her son. She took over the store, etching “Hometown” in its new name to remind residents to shop locally. During the holidays, she fills kettles with old-fashioned candies. In the summer, she sells flowers and plants out of “Bonnie’s Bloomers,” a greenhouse outside the store.
But each year, the business became “more of a struggle,” she said, as sales fell and repairs mounted. The decades-old freezer sucked electricity and often broke, and required unloading and thawing three times a year, putting food out of customers’ reach.
Then she heard about Kickstarter from an unlikely new friend.
For months after Kathy Draeger moved from St. Paul to a 320-acre farm outside of Clinton, she carted coolers full of bulk grains and organic milk back from the city co-op. Today, she admits to turning her nose up at Bonnie’s, assuming it carried “more pop and chips than organic kale.”
But partly because of her work on food issues, Draeger rethought her assumptions, quizzing Carlson about produce and touring her distributor.
“The local food movement has ignored and neglected rural grocery stores,” said Draeger, statewide director of the University of Minnesota’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships. But she believes the two are a perfect fit, partly because of their small scale. Five or six cartons at time, Draeger sells her farm’s eggs at Bonnie’s.
Draeger and Carlson drew up a Kickstarter request. “Rural grocery stores … are closing in many small towns,” it said. “Once they are gone, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to replace them.”
People pledged. A bistro owner in California chipped in.
The new freezer, installed in January, is “just wonderful,” Carlson said, opening and shutting one of the doors. Under the bright, LED lights, frozen vegetables, pizza and pints of Ben and Jerry’s glowed.
Long list left
The support has buoyed Carlson’s belief that this business is important. But Carlson’s list of things that need fixing is still long. Water stains on the sagging ceiling are spreading. On a recent morning, a sudden piercing whistle, like a tea kettle, snapped Carlson’s attention to a nearby cooler. She got close, checking the temperature and assessing the noise.
“They don’t like it when it’s really hot and humid out,” she explained with a smile.
Without her boyfriend’s help covering the bills, Carlson would have closed or sold years ago, she said.
Families that once shopped in town now drive 70 miles to the Wal-Mart in Watertown, S.D., she said. Most of the older residents who once paid in advance have passed away. One of the churches will soon close.
“Every year, it seems like you’re losing something,” she said. “And you know, you don’t ever gain anything.
“So that makes it tough.”
Pausing her cart in the produce section, Karen Hagen put a few plums in a bag. The lifelong resident lives a block away and walks to Bonnie’s three times a week. She contributes at Carlson’s fundraising suppers in the park, which help pay for repairs, and appreciates her selection.
“She’s got good stuff, for a small store,” she said. Her hamburger, Hagen added, is “very good.”
But she worries about older people passing away and younger people shopping in the bigger cities. Driving north to visit her daughter, they pass through towns “that don’t have a restaurant, don’t have a grocery store — nothing,” she said. “I think people should just realize: That could be us, if they don’t start shopping at home.”