Many of us take for granted the invisible food system that keeps the shelves stocked in our local grocery stores. In fact, many small towns take for granted that they will have a local grocery store until that store is in jeopardy or disappears off of Main Street altogether. Recently, the United States Department of Agriculture released a map of "food deserts" in the United States. A rural place is labeled as a food desert when it is more than 10 miles to the largest "supermarket or large grocery." All of Big Stone County, with the exception of the City of Ortonville, is labeled a food desert. Here we are in the heart of farm country and yet considered a food desert.
A person could argue with being labeled a "food desert" since there are three grocery stores that serve this particular area-- Bonnie's Home Town Grocery in Clinton, Beardsley Country Market, and Graceville Country Market. I began my quest to find out how food comes to a rural food desert by asking Bonnie, owner of Bonnie's Hometown Grocery, where her groceries come from--the answer: Mason Brothers Wholesale Grocers of Wadena, Minnesota.
That led to a recent trip to Wadena, MN (population 4,000) where Mason Brothers Wholesale Grocery is headquartered to get a first hand view of the business behind our rural food distribution system. This family owned business has been supplying food to rural communities since 1920. I met with Muryln Kreklau, Mason Brothers Sales Manager, who gave me a tour and an education about bringing food to rural communities. Muryln has been with Mason Bros. for 39 years. He started working there as a teenager instead of going into his families dairy operation. Murlyn moved up the ranks to his current position and along the way developed a great deal of knowledge about the economics and viability of small town stores.
Mason Brothers: Serving Small Place
Mason Brothers is a full service grocery wholesaler that delivers to approximately 260 grocery stores throughout rural Minnesota, eastern North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Mason Bros. is very unique in that the majority of stores they service have populations of less than 1,000. Anecdotally, they have observed that it is economically feasible for nearly any wholesale grocer to supply towns with population of 3,200 and above. SuperValu, a national chain with a strong regional presence, commonly provides wholesale groceries to towns with populations of 1,800 and greater and occasionally to communities with populations as low as 1,200.
Because of their routes to the smallest of small towns, Murlyn and the drivers have a front row seat and an important back door function in keeping food on the shelves of rural towns. After a couple hours touring the Mason Bros. facilities, I realized what an asset they are to our rural food system--getting meat, fresh bakery products, dairy, and fresh produce to some of the smallest and more isolated stores out here in our so-called "food desert."
Actually delivering the groceries to Bonnie's Hometown Grocery is no small feat. Bonnie's has no loading dock and it took a great deal of skill to maneuver that large semi-truck through the alley to the back door of the store. Bob Warner and Dave Bernstetter, 14 years and 1 week with the company, respectively, are the Mason Brothers drivers who delivered to Bonnie's Hometown Grocery this week. They start their day around 4:30am at Mason Brother headquarters in Wadena, Minnesota. By 6pm tonight they will have delivered groceries to 8 towns in Minnesota and South Dakota, unloading by hand a semi full of pallets of food. There's a great deal of physical labor involved in delivering and stocking the shelves with food. The people of Clinton, Graceville, Ashby, Evansville and Wilmot South Dakota- to name a few- will have fresh produce, meat, frozen and canned fruits and veggies, and baked goods thanks to these gentlemen.
In addition to Dave and Bob, there are around 260 people employed by Mason Brothers, making them the largest employer in Wadena, Minnesota. In walking through the front offices and touring the warehouse, the staff seemed relaxed and happy. The "campus" includes a gym and a pool that is available to all of the employees and their families. The warehouse facilities are state of the art, organized, and clean. They provide a USDA inspected meat cutting facility for those small town groceries that don't have their own meat cutting equipment. Their bakery, Abby's, prepares custom ordered breads, cakes, cookies, buns and rolls that are baked overnight and on the shelf in grocery stores the same day.
Community Matters! Challenges for Small Town Grocery Stores
"Unless something is done, small town groceries are going away" say the Mason Brothers Sales Manager after a tour of their facilities. "It's a problem there's not an answer to-yet." "Somehow, community is a part of the solution. Like investing in a community center and gathering place."
Murlyn gets many calls from people with questions about starting small town grocery stores. As a result, he's developed his own set of spreadsheets to do projections that help people determine the feasibility (profit and loss) of these small town stores. In the past few years high energy costs hurt small, rural groceries and as a result a number of small town grocery stores were shuttered and closed down. In fact, Mason Brothers has seen the turnover of around 60 of their 260 stores since 2007 alone. Murlyn is eager to discuss factors that contribute to the health and sustainability of rural groceries.
One of the key factors in having a small town grocery is to have a building that the grocery can afford. Very low building/rent costs are important to making the balance sheets balance. It's really difficult to buy an existing old store, make the payments for that business, and generate profits. The grocery business runs on thin margins of between 1-3%, as does Mason Brothers. Murlyn has seen some very inspiring examples of how small towns overcome the barriers associated with housing their rural grocery. For example, in Hope, North Dakota (population 258) the roof of Mick's Grocery was caving in. Mick had decided that it didn't pay to repair it and so was planning to close his store. The community realized they needed to rally around their town's grocery and so the city built a community center that includes a restaurant and space for the family owned grocery store. This is a great example of a public-private partnership that works to the benefit of a rural community and perhaps a needed model to overcoming rural food deserts.
In response to my questions about cooperative and community own grocery stores, Murlyn was quick to point out that in his 30 year experience the "mom and pop" owned stores fare better and stay open longer than other ownership forms. Mason Brothers supplies groceries to any store, regardless of ownership structure and have seen some community owned stores that work, but sadly more do not. It's hard to run a grocery store by committee and the amount of time and energy (to quote the "long, hard hours") that a family owned stores invests goes beyond that of most volunteers and employees.
There is much more that can be said about providing safe, healthy food for rural area in America. A lot of effort, organization, and business acumen plays out every day in keeping Main Street small town grocery stores open. Mason Brothers is a welcomed part of that food system for which small town grocers, like Bonnie Carlson, are grateful. Maybe you'll look differently at the circular that came with today's Northern Star Newspaper and notice the Mason Brothers name and logo on the lower right hand side. I know that I will.