Cinnamon rolls and casseroles a drawing card for tiny Kansas town

The food here is just like Grandma used to make.

People come from miles around – neighboring states and across the nation – to the Family Food Store.

“Food isn’t just about food,” says owner Greg Wolf. “It’s about memories and sharing and family.

“People come here and repeatedly say, ‘My grandma used to do something like this, and I’ve never tasted anything like it since.’ It is a thrill for us to evoke some of those feelings in people.”

Despite the struggling rural Kansas economy and the fact Sawyer has only 128 residents, Wolf has put together a strategy to help the Family Food Store succeed.

“You can make a business work anywhere if you have the right formula,” Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, said in an e-mail to The Eagle.

Wolf and his family operate the store, baking to-die-for pans of cinnamon rolls, cherry rolls, pies, take-and-bake pizzas and casseroles and serving up homemade deli sandwiches, the only hand-dipped ice cream in Pratt County and canned items like sandhill plum jelly and spiced peaches.

The family are members of the Old German Baptist Brethren, a religious sect similar to the Amish and Mennonites. In fact, they dress similarly to the Amish but drive cars. They do not believe in using radio, television or the Internet.

The only advertising they do is through word of mouth.

But word of their store has spread.

Family business model

Wolf grew up on a family farm near Quinter. He received his bachelor’s degree in agriculture economics in 1992 from Kansas State University.

He said he worked for Kennedy and Coe, now named K Coe Isom, an agricultural finance consulting firm in Pratt, for 20 years before buying the local restaurant in Sawyer three years ago.

“The restaurant had served a lot of people through the years, and then it changed hands again and again and again, like the model of a lot of local cafes,” Wolf said. “The model of local farmers and ranchers coming in to eat eggs and drink coffee doesn’t work anymore.”

His wife, Ruby, grew up in a family-owned bakery in Ohio and wanted to do something similar in Sawyer, but Greg knew there had to be more.

“The economy is such now that you can’t serve 20 people for breakfast every morning and make a place like this work,” he said. “We went into it knowing we would do something different.

“We can’t just serve the immediate local community – we’ve got to become somewhat of a destination attraction for people coming in. We want to serve the locals, too, but we have to be able to attract others.”

It seems to be working. The store attracts customers from across Kansas and neighboring states.

Lana and Edwin Craft of Monroe, La., bought 200 pans of the store’s cinnamon rolls to give as presents to their clients, friends and family at Christmas.

“We are just really crazy about them,” Lana Craft said. “What makes those rolls good is the yeast and the cinnamon. My husband says you have to buy new pants after eating there for awhile. It’s not the same as buying rolls in the grocery store.”

Last week, the store got a call from a man who owns a helicopter. He wanted to know whether there was room near the store for him to land long enough to buy some cinnamon rolls.

In addition, Greg Wolf said, it was important that the business have several elements: a deli, bakery, bulk foods, grocery and homemade foods.

“We can’t get too narrow,” he said. “We can’t be just a cafe. We have to be a food store and have a number of things.

“We went into it with different departments and didn’t know how each of them would go.”

So when the Wolfs bought the building three years ago, the family painted its interior white, took out the grill, put in industrial ovens and placed homey items throughout the store.

Ruby and Greg Wolf have six children ranging in age from 2 to 19. The Wolfs wanted their children to learn from the family business.

“They learn a lot about business concepts,” Greg Wolf said.

“I worked for 20 years in a corporate setting, and I was treated very well. But I dreamed of actually working alongside my family and teaching them to run the register and meet customers.”

In the beginning, Wolf said, the children were sometimes afraid to look strangers in the eye. Now they greet and chat with customers with ease.

Defying the odds

Travel across Kansas, and it is easy to see how the rural economy has taken a hit.

The longtime trifecta of Kansas industry staples – oil, gas and agriculture – are struggling and in recession, forcing some local businesses to lay off workers and families to cut back.

Almost weekly, there is news of restaurants, implement dealerships and even grocery stores closing in small towns.

And when you travel the 83,000 square miles of Kansas, you pass more than 7,350 restaurants, according to the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association.

The Wolf family store is not typical.

“The (Wolfs) have been very strategic in each decision they’ve made, and it’s led to a successful and highly explorer-y destination,” Penner, with the Kansas Sampler Foundation, said in an e-mail.

The Kansas Sampler Foundation, based near Inman, supports rural Kansas. Penner said she knew the first time she stepped inside the Family Food Store that she had found a place to promote.

“There is nothing fancy about the exterior of the metal building, but once inside, you know you’ve hit a jackpot,” Penner said. “Shopping for Kansas products and bulk foods, eating lunch and leaving with baked goods should just be a standard practice when going here.

“Once you’ve had a homemade caramel nut roll or cherry roll, you will be a lifelong customer.”

Wolf said the key to making the store work is diversification. They also sell brightly colored recycled polyethylene patio furniture, which also serves as a place for people to sit, visit and gather outside the store; decorative pillows; local honey; real maple syrup; and homemade soaps, sugar scrubs and lip-balm blends.

Customers have asked the Wolfs to franchise their business concept.

For now, Greg Wolf said, that’s probably not happening.

“It was a dream of our family to do something in the food service industry,” he said. “We wanted to do something with our children before they moved away from home.

“Rather than them needing to find a job up at the McDonald’s or somewhere else, we wanted a place for them to work and be together.”

Fans of the store

Bob and Nita Kilgore of Greensburg heard about the Sawyer Family Food Store from the man who serviced their lawnmower in Pratt.

“He kept saying this was a good place to go eat, and finally we said we needed to make a date and go,” Bob Kilgore said.

For the past three years, the Kilgores and friends Gary and Marilyn Goodheart have made a trip to the store about every two weeks.

“We have fallen in love with the family – all the kids,” Nita Kilgore said.

“One time they were getting ready for a wedding, so more of the family was here. We told Greg we’d like to hear them sing. … They had beautiful voices. And they sang just for us.”

The Kilgores have been known to take home as many as 14 pans of cinnamon rolls at a time – once family and friends learned of their regular journeys.

“Our pharmacist, she is just the cutest, sweetest girl; I began taking cinnamon rolls to her,” Bob Kilgore said.

“I came back with a couple of pans and she pays me, takes them, turns her back on me and starts eating.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

Getting to Sawyer

Where: The Family Food Store in Sawyer is on the north edge of town on U.S. 281.

When: Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and 7 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturdays. It will be closed May 12-21. During June, when harvest typically moves through Kansas, it will also be open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on Wednesdays.

More info: Call 620-594-2483.

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