Alma Food Mart

By Deme Kopulos

There were 69 Wal-Mart stores located in Kansas as of March 2011. With the chain and many like it growing rapidly, rural grocery stores in Kansas are fighting to stay alive.

"They really don't like Wal-Mart," David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at K-State, said of rural grocers' feelings toward the large chain stores. His team has been researching the issues rural grocery stores face and working toward solutions since June 2010.

Competing with one-stop shopping stores such as Wal-Mart is the largest problem rural stores face. For Alma residents who work in larger cities such as Topeka, only a 40-minute drive away, shopping locally often becomes a second choice.

Jeanette Rohleder-Supernaw, owner of the Alma Bakery, faces the struggle many residents of her town and other small towns like it also face.

"I have deliveries in Topeka and when I'm conducting business there I'll pick up groceries as well and get my shopping for the week done," said Rohleder-Supernaw.

Alma business owners Rohleder-Supernaw and Jim Puff both agree that in order to have a thriving business in a rural town, owners have to find their niche as a store.

"To bring them into this store you've got to have quality service and you've got to have quality product," said Puff, owner of Alma Food Mart.

There is one angle rural grocery stores have working for their advantage.

"With gas prices rising, right now is a good time to get that 'shop home first' concept back into people's brains which is hard to do," said Puff.

The town of Tipton, population 265, still boasts a grocery store.

"People that need to drive to a K-Mart drive 90 miles, we need to get it in their heads in order to protect your community you need to shop at home," said Tipton Grocery owner Fred Smith.

This is not only a concern for Alma, but for small towns in Kansas in general. The fear of rural grocery stores closing, and starting the downfall of the rest of the locally owned businesses, is a reality in towns all over Kansas.

The town of Plains lost its grocery store a decade ago and is still feeling the absence of a hometown shopping destination.

"We've been without a grocery store for 10 years and were trying to get one back. We've been working on it for getting close to three years. Were losing other businesses because we don't have a grocery store," said Plains resident Jeanne Roberts.

Puff has been concerned about what the possibility of the only grocery store in Alma closing might do to residents of his town.

"But you've got a lot of older people in these little towns, a little gal lives other there that's got a bunch of cats and she buys $100 worth of cat food a week, but she doesn't have a car where she can drive and shop anywhere either, so these little towns, the older people are the ones who are suffering and really getting hurt every time a small store closes," said Puff.

Inside the walls of the Alma Food Mart, customers can witness the state that some rural grocery stores in Kansas are in today. From barren walls to large gaps of products on the worn-out shelves, the store seems to be a mere shell of a once thriving business.

Alma Food Mart, the only grocery store in the rural town, has been in existence since the early 1970s and has gone through bankruptcy twice. Puff, who has been in the grocery store business for more than 43 years, has had the Alma store for three years. He also owns the Cornerstone Café and Puffy's steakhouse.

"When we moved in here we put in a brand new meat case, brand new produce, we put in 23 doors of frozen food, they had a bunch of three-door freezers in here that were all independent plugged-in 220s and the light bill was suppose to go down, but it didn't go down it went through the roof, and the price of utilities have gone up too. Our light bill here has been averaging about $4,500 a month," said Puff.

Energy consumption is a major issue not only for the Alma Food Mart, but also for many rural grocery stores. Refrigeration units and freezer bins consume large amounts of energy, and storeowners are doing everything they can to help cut costs.

"We've cut our bill there from $3,000 a month to $1,600 or $1,700 a month with refrigeration cuts alone."

Labor issues are also a pressing issue in rural towns. Many owners find problems in not the number of staff, but the quality. Also when it comes to the Alma Food Mart, age is a factor, Puff said.

"The thing of it is the kid sector entering into the workforce today, they don't want to work, maybe 10 percent of them, you can't bring them in to stand around at $7.25 an hour," he said.

"If we don't turn these little towns around, these little towns aren't going to be having any businesses in them," said Puff.

The research being done by Procter and his team has brought about solutions such as the Simply Kansas program. The goal of the program is to improve the economic condition of Kansas producers and rural communities.

"We're hoping that local and small grocery stores will follow the trend of consumers wanting to purchase local products," said Becky Rose of the Kansas Department of Commerce's Rural Development division.

Residents and business owners agree that grocery stores are an important part of rural towns. Small-town stores give back to the community, and that help is lost when stores close.

"Grocery stores are critical to keeping the culture alive, keeping sort of the identity of the town alive," said Procter.