Little Grocery on the Prairie

A recent visit to Rex Ace Hardware and Country Store in my hometown of Petaluma, California reminded me that businesses can serve as more than just a place to buy products. In small towns, the local grocery or hardware store often also serves as a community gathering space, where town residents can get advice from the proprietor (and anyone else who happens to be inside), meet fellow community members, learn about the town's happenings, run into old friends - and, yes, make a purchase.

As demographic shifts bring diversity to previously homogeneous areas, spaces where community members come together have become that much more important.


One example of a community space "hosted" by a business is in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, a town of 599 residents. According to the Community Investment Fund, Walnut Grove is home to a growing number of minorities; thirty percent of its school-age population is listed as having Asian ethnicity. The one grocery store in the town, Bubai Foods, is owned by Laotian immigrants Harris and Terry Yang.

I spoke to Rennae Krentz about the grocery and its impact on the town. Rennae, a longtime resident of Walnut Grove, participates in a citizen-led effort in Southwest Minnesota called Intercultural Communities Uniting (a Blue Cross and Blue Shield funded initiative). She told me that Harris and Terry initially began their business venture as an Asian grocery so that the growing Hmong community in Walnut Grove could have access to the foods they were accustomed to. Their grocery was in the building next door to the locally owned, "mainstream" grocery store.

Ultimately, when the long-time grocery owner decided to sell his business, Harris and Terry bought it. They opened up the wall between the Asian grocery and the town grocery, and now the two businesses are connected as one. In fact, their fresh-made egg rolls are so popular that people of all cultures line up to buy them each week.

When something happens in the town or vicinity, Harris and Terry are consulted as representatives of - and highly respected elders of - the Asian community. Harris and Terry are "good community partners," says Rennae, always participating in national night out and donating food to community picnics. When asked about the intitial reluctance on the part of long-time Walnut Grove residents to shop at an immigrant-owned store, Rennae replied, "you don't even think of it anymore. We all shop there."

As southwest Minnesota continues to become more ethnically diverse, community-based businesses like Bubai Foods offer a place to come together, and for walls between peoples to come down.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs