In rural Nebraska, locally owned grocery stores fill a void with fresh produce and community spirit

Jan. 19, 2023, 5 a.m. ·

Cody-Kilgore student helps a customer at the Circle C. (Archive Photo by Mike Tobias)

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Buying healthy food close to home is a challenge for many people in rural Nebraska. There are 44 counties in the United States with no grocery store at all, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Ten of those counties are in Nebraska. Multiple rural communities are combating this issue with cooperative markets.

Post 60 Market opened in the 824-person town of Emerson in August. It’s named after the American Legion building which the store now occupies. The northeast Nebraska town had been without a grocer for four years. Brian Horak, manager of Post 60 Market, said he’s optimistic the store will be successful because of its focus on customers.

“If they're brand new, I say, ‘If you don't see anything you like and usually buy, let me know. I'll get it in here and I'll bring it in. We'll see how it moves,’” Horak said. “Usually if somebody wants it – one person wants it – there's probably 10 others that want it. So, it usually sells.”

As a cooperative grocer, many of the patrons have ownership in the store.

The community invested nearly $160,000 in the store last spring. That’s more than double their original goal. Investors get discounts and also dividends from the profits, Horak said. People who aren’t invested can also buy their food at Post 60 Market. The store also accepts vouchers for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

Horak said having a cooperative, or co-op, reduces risks and burdens.

“With being a co-op and so many people bought in – It's like you got multiple owners who have just as much commitment to see this thing succeed. So they're kind of your advocate and cheerleaders, if you'd say, to get more people in here,” Horak said. “I view it more as a benefit.”

Emerson is one of three towns to receive a grant from the University of Nebraska’s Cooperative Development Center last year. The two other stores include Farm to Family Cooperative in the panhandle town of Hay Springs, and the northern Nebraska town of Lynch and its store, Valley Foods Cooperative.

The university works with a steering committee in a prospective community to determine whether a cooperative grocery store is feasible.

Inside of Stapleton store. There are numerous local vendors selling their baked goods at the grocery store.
Inside of Stapleton Cooperative Market & Deli there are numerous local vendors selling their baked goods. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media)

However, the cooperative business structure doesn’t eliminate all the challenges of operating a rural grocery store.

Almost six years ago, Stapleton in central Nebraska opened the Stapleton Cooperative Market & Deli. Stapleton is located 30 miles north of North Platte. Board member Dan Beckius said the store has struggled to turn a profit.

“Right now we're still getting our feet under us, and we have not paid dividends out,” Beckius said. “But later on, if it gets so we're turning a profit, we will pay dividends out.”

The Stapleton community raised $210,000 to open the store, even though Stapleton has about 550 fewer residents than Emerson.

Beckius said it’s difficult finding new customers. However, he still thinks cooperatives have the advantage of widespread community interest in growing and improving the store.

“You never have too many opinions, because everybody sees stuff from a different angle,” Beckius said. “You need everybody’s input, because everybody owns a piece of this store that’s an investor. So, they need to have their say.”

Beckius said members are committed to the longevity of having fresh groceries in Stapleton.

U.S. Highway 83 is a hilly scenic drive between North Platte and Stapleton.
U.S. Highway 83 is a scenic drive between North Platte and Stapleton through the Sandhills. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media)

Another rural town is finding success with a different kind of niche grocery store. In the 167-person town of Cody, located in north-central Nebraska, Cody-Kilgore Public School students run Circle C Market and get school credit for their work.

A board of directors represents the three entities that have a financial interest in the store. This includes the Village of Cody, which owns the building, Cowboy Grit, a local nonprofit, and the school itself.

The three organizations began planning the store in 2008 with help from the Center for Rural Affairs. Grants from USDA and Omaha’s Sherwood Foundation assisted financially in the beginning. In the early 2010s, the store opened and a business class was born.

The class is guided by teacher and store manager, Liz Ravenscroft. She said about eight students manage the store each semester.

“I teach them how to do the different orders, so like pop orders and chip orders,” Ravenscroft said. “I also have students that I teach how to do billing.”

Another eight students work for an hourly paycheck outside of school hours. Student employees can apply for college scholarships funded by the store’s profits.

From 2016-2022, the store’s annual revenue grew from $250,000 per year to $316,000 per year.

Throughout the state, many rural grocers have more traditional business models. But, even some of those stores offer unique services to bolster their revenue streams. Joe’s Market in Loup City in central Nebraska has a beauty parlor inside. And in south-central Nebraska, Bruning Grocery sells holiday meat boxes.

Bruning Grocery has been owned by Paul Philippi’s family for 50 years. In 2008 after graduating college, he returned to work in the family business. Philippi said he wanted to carry on his grandfather’s and father’s legacy of serving families around the holidays.

But, the third-generation owner said, there was one thing he elected to change. He decided to go digital. Although not every household has high speed internet in Bruning, Philippi said postage became too expensive for paper advertising.

“We quit sending out a paper ad,” he said. “We do a lot of promoting of our online ad through our website and social media – promoting it that way. And to be honest, we've actually seen an uptick, I think, in the amount of people looking at it.”

Brian Horak (right) and Mark Graf, an Emerson Board Member, stand next to their Christmas tree inside of Post 60 Market
Brian Horak (right) and board member, Mark Graf (left), stand next to a Christmas tree inside of Post 60 Market in Emerson. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media)

But no matter the business model, Emerson’s Brian Horak said two things make locally owned, rural grocers competitive.

“Friendliness and cleanliness. That's the two key things,” he said. “I mean, you get the Walmart’s and Hyvee’s and stuff like that, but they're not gonna know you by name. We’re gonna know you by name. We're gonna know what you want.”

In addition to creating a welcoming space inside the store, Horak said his store works with mission-driven organizations in the community.

The market sells to the local school district for lunches. A local food bank buys from Post 60 Market for its backpack program which gives food to students in need over the weekends. Horak said all these partnerships allow the store and the people of Emerson to benefit one another.

“We're here to succeed to see everybody else succeed. So it's kind of a service, the way I view it,” Horak said. “I mean, you want to make money and everything. That's the ultimate goal. But, you also want to provide the service because that's why the store’s here. All the organizations, as long as they benefit with us being here, I think Emerson is going to be a lot better.”

Editor’s note: The author is related to two of the investors in Emerson’s Post 60 Market.