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Star Grocery-Keep communities stocked

Related Story: Main Street Market, Hazelton
       by Luann Dart
Star Grocery in New Leipzig is trulya community store. This is a store where the manager herself, Delores Halstead, lugs groceries to a customer’s car. It’s where a resident stops to ask if Halstead has seen “Janice,” and Halstead replies that the cat was by the bank earlier, being patted on the head. Another customer lingers to give an update when Halstead asks about his wife’s health.

Delores Halstad manages the Star Grocery in New Liepzig, N.D.

It’s a typical day at a grocery store that is not only the heart of the community, but is owned by the community.

Star Grocery is just one of many rural grocery stores in North Dakota being kept open by volunteer labor, a shoestring budget and the sheer willpower of local residents.

Lori Capouch, the rural development director of the Rural Electric and Telecommunications Development Center in Mandan, noticed that trend about two years ago when her office was receiving calls from rural grocery stores seeking grant funds just to stay open. So, the Rural Electric and Telecommunications Development Center developed a survey and sent it to grocery stores in communities with populations of 2,500 or less in 2014.

“We surveyed the grocers to figure out if there were commonalities and what the challenges were and if we could emerge with any opportunities to help them,” she says.

Partnering with the North Dakota State University Extension and Dakota College, Capouch’s office analyzed the survey results, revealing “a core theme throughout the survey appears to be people shopping out of town, competition from other stores, and availability of labor,” the survey summarizes.

The group then targeted four grocery stores that were considered both rural and innovative in Hazelton, Bowdon, New Leipzig and Tuttle. The Hazelton store is owned by a group of community investors, while the other three stores are community-owned.

Bringing representatives from the four stores together, Capouch discovered another urgent need.

“We would bring them together and they were just trying to learn so much from each other. What do you charge? How do you staff? What hours are you open? Labor issues, marketing issues. It became so clear that they have no forum to get any education on topics, no way to network with one another. There was no entity available to help them through that,” Capouch describes. “That’s one of the opportunities we’re hoping to capitalize on is developing some type of networking system for them and educational opportunities.”

Rural grocery stores are also challenged to find suppliers willing to send delivery trucks to locations that don’t necessarily meet minimum buying requirements. Stores are ordering bread supplies through UPS, using convenience store suppliers or even shopping for groceries at larger markets and bringing them home to stock the shelves locally.

“We’re hoping to see if there is a way to bring affordability and more efficiency to the supply system,” Capouch says. “Hopefully, we can identify some possible opportunities to bring efficiencies to distributing some of the groceries in the short term.”

Of the grocery stores surveyed, 7 percent indicated the store would close within five years and more than half had no transition or succession plan in place.

That’s a familiar scenario for the stores targeted by the Rural Electric and Telecommunications Development Center.

When the grocery store in New Leipzig closed 10 years ago, the building was sold at an auction. The New Leipzig Job Development Authority (JDA) purchased the building with hopes to keep the store intact and sell it to an individual. When no one stepped forward, the New Leipzig JDA decided to operate the business, restocking the store with a loan from the Grant County JDA.

“Those three months without the store was really bad. The town is dead without a grocery store,” says Shirley Roehl, who volunteers her time to do all the store’s accounting work. The seven-member New Leipzig JDA board oversees the store’s operations, with volunteers unloading delivery trucks, stocking shelves and manning the cash register when needed.

“If we didn’t have volunteers, we probably would not be open anymore,” Shirley says.

“It’s run by the community for the community,” says Floyd Roehl, who also serves on the JDA board.

“We are here to help the senior citizens because they are the ones who don’t go out of town to shop, but a person living alone doesn’t need a lot of groceries,” Shirley says.

Trying to widen the customer base is another challenge for rural grocery stores.

“If everybody who lives in our trade area bought at our store, we’d probably do fine,” Shirley says.