Grocery stores lifeblood of small Kansas towns
For years, people have predicted this little town will die.
When Dale Huncovsky, owner of the Cuba Cash Store – the only grocery store in this Republic County town of 150 residents – did die three years ago, it looked like the naysayers might be right.
In small towns across Kansas, grocery stores are the economic engines that drive a community. The presence of a store often determines whether a town lives or dies.
“This town needs a good restaurant, but we need a grocery store even more,” said Cheri Cardi, owner of the Cuba Cash Store.
Most people may not know or care about Cuba or other small towns like it, but they should, said David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University.
“For anyone who has an interest in seeing rural America survive, we have to care,” Procter said.
“Even if we don’t live in small towns, a bunch of us have deep roots,” he said.
Nearly one-third of supermarkets in Kansas communities with fewer than 2,000 people have closed since 2007, Procter said. There used to be 213 grocery stores in those small Kansas towns; now the number is closer to 160, he said.
“The most obvious thing it does is create a greater distance for people to access food,” Proctor said.
“For a lot of rural citizens, it is not a big deal. But for those who are elderly and/or who do not have reliable transportation, it is a big deal.”
In a state known as the breadbasket of the world and whose leading exports are wheat and beef, there are food deserts — places where Kansans may have to travel 10 to 50 miles for a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread.
Local stores rely on customer loyalty to compete with large chain stores and try to develop models that are most effective for their communities, Procter said. They often have to do so on minimal budgets.
The sun is barely coming up on the horizon as Cardi and her son, Noah, slip into the Cuba Cash Store.
She walks across the century-old wood floors to her cluttered rolltop desk at the back of the store and flips open her laptop, checking the latest updates on when the weekly semi truck carrying groceries will arrive. It has been known to arrive anywhere from 4 to 10:30 a.m.
Last fall, at age 55, Cardi became the store’s new owner.
“I bought the Cuba Cash Store because this store is the heart of this town,” Cardi said. “It is an institution and has been here forever.
“This brings people to town.”
Floyd Rytch, a former Republic County commissioner and store volunteer, calls it the second-largest grocery store in Republic County. That’s because the county – which borders Nebraska – only has two grocery stores; the other is in Belleville.
The semi growled, rolled and lurched into Cuba at 7:30 a.m. And with its arrival came a half dozen people from all directions. All were in their 70s and 80s — some driving golf carts on the dusty streets — and all were ready to help unload the truck.
Within 15 minutes, the volunteers had the truck unloaded and were headed back to the regular routines of their day.
It’s all about ingenuity
Procter’s Center for Engagement and Community Development is trying to help small grocery stores by providing technical assistance and research.
“What is happening more and more is that communities are looking for community solutions to getting and keeping a grocery store,” he said.
Rural grocery stores are critical small businesses — the average grocery store contributes more than half a million dollars to the local economy. On average, Procter said, the stores provide 17 full-time jobs and 11 part-time.
Some communities are working through local foundations to help finance grocery stores — such as Morland in northwest Kansas and Plains in southwest Kansas.
In Rice County, a private bank, the city commission and community foundation in Little River have bought a grocery store building and are leasing it to the operators to run.
St. Paul, in Neosho County, has formed a partnership between the city and store owners to defray the costs of operating a grocery store.
And, in St. John, when the long-time Dillons store closed last year, Carolyn Dunn, the Stafford County economic director, began looking for options. A feasibility study showed that the old store, located along the town square in a 3,800-square-foot space, wasn’t an option.
“In order to have a more viable store, we needed more space to offer the kind of variety people want to have,” Dunn said.
“We are all exposed to a variety of ideas on Facebook and the Food Network. … If they can’t get kale at their food store in a small town, they will get it (somewhere else).”
A $3 million building with 10,000 square feet of space and a parking lot has been proposed along with a convenience store/gas station and pharmacy. Residents have provided some funding and officials have applied for a federal grant. Land has been purchased next to the U.S. 281 in anticipation of building in 2018.
A letter of intent has been signed with White’s Foodliner, which owns grocery stores in Kingman, Medicine Lodge, Phillipsburg and Pawnee, Okla.
Perils of small-town stores
D. Patrick “Pat” White believes in small town stores.
“That’s where we lived and grew up,” White said.
He is the owner of White’s Kingco Inc., also known as White’s Foodliner. Pat’s parents, Joe and Frances White, established White’s Foodliner in 1953 in Coldwater.
“If you are going to be in this business and be independent operators, there is no future in going head to head directly against the big boys — the Walmarts, Dillons and Hy-Vees,” he said. “That is our competition because people travel; everybody goes and drives to the next bigger town.”
White, 64, said his philosophy is to keep things simple but to also offer a variety of shopping options that might draw in people — like what he did in Medicine Lodge where he has family ties.
“In 2010, we had a store in Medicine Lodge. It was in downtown and needed to get upgraded. We needed to spend $300,000 to $500,000,” White said.
“I could sell it and let somebody else worry about it. But this is a community where we live and work.
“We decided to build a new building. It is a $2.5- to $3-million investment but we have a nice new little store with an automatic car-wash, liquor store and laundry.”
The operation in St. John will be a similar concept. But St. John is dicier, he said.
“When the Dillons closed there, I think they (St. John officials) called every grocery in the country,” White said. “Everybody said the same thing. With only 1,300 people, they don’t have the people. They don’t have the equipment. Nobody wanted to do it.
“But the economic director there is the most incredible person. She wouldn’t give up on it. The town wants a grocery store.
“This is what I told them: We are not going to invest money in the thing. They are going to build a store to our specifications and our advice.”
Although much of the funding is already in place, St. John is still waiting to hear whether it will receive a $800,000 federal grant. It should know within the next few months, Dunn said.
“The thing about small towns is it gives you an opportunity to do some good,” White said. “It’s like being a big fish in a small pond: You either like it or you don’t. I have always liked it.”
Cuba is a unique place, Procter said.
For one thing, Huncovsky — the grocery store’s previous owner — had built a partnership business that also catered to surrounding schools, cafes and assisted living centers besides operating the grocery store.
And the community operates on volunteerism.
“One of the things we are looking at is how much does a town pull together to make whatever happen,” Procter said. “How do they respond to disasters, to helping neighbors.
“Our belief is that the stronger the bonds of the town are and the more a store integrates itself into the town, the more likely people will support it and the town will survive.”
Cardi, the new owner of the Cuba store, said it is all about goodwill. She helped cater the town’s Rock-A-Thon, which raised nearly $50,000, and the Harvest Festival and cooked 1,400 hamburger patties for the county 4-H Fair.
Her son, Noah, is autistic and helps out in the store. He knows every one on a first-name basis, what brand of cigarettes they smoke, what beer they buy and jokes with them.
When a new sidewalk was put in across the street from the grocery store, he made sure the workers had plenty of bottles of cold water and sandwiches to eat.
Since Cardi bought the store, she said she has put in a new freezer condenser and fixed the produce cooler and milk cooler.
“Our biggest supporters are the ones who buy the least,” Cardi said of elderly residents on fixed incomes.
She keeps the store stocked with fresh meat, cheeses, hand-made Czech bologna and produce.
“National Geographic said this town was dying years ago,” said Nick Gieber, who grew up in Cuba but now lives in Manhattan. He drives in to help unload the semi.
“When we lost the school, they said we were going to die,” his brother, Butch, interjects. “We are not going to let that happen.
“Over the years, Cuba has accomplished a lot more than other towns across the state mostly because we have an attitude here that we intend to keep it.”