Garden of Eden of Little River

By Alex Lord

Located in Little River, Kan., the Garden of Eden, Heavenly Meats and Groceries strives to be integral to its community.

"We said 'This is your store. What do you want us to put on your shelves?' " Debra Nelson, part owner of Garden of Eden, said.

She and her and her husband, David, bought the store, then Fuller Market, five years ago.

Being supportive of the community is a key component behind the store. Along with groceries and produce, the Garden of Eden has a corkboard in one corner that has rotating high school art. Nelson said students and parents enjoy seeing art that's been created by people they know.

When the Nelsons purchased the store, they added a coffee bar with tables both inside and outside the store. There are many times in the mornings when Nelson finds herself scrambling for chairs to accommodate the number of customers who frequent the coffee bar. One member of the morning coffee bunch, Betty Reilly, said the Garden of Eden has helped lead the way in sprucing up town.

"Having a grocery store is a big thing in making this town better," Reilly said.

Little River has recently restored many of the buildings on main street.

"Debra (Nelson) was the spear head of the 150th anniversary and got a decorator from McPherson to improve the buildings downtown," Reilly said.

The Nelsons also added Hunt Brother's Pizza. Customers can call or walk in and order their pizza. Nelson or another employee will put the toppings on and bake it, and the pizza will be ready to go in about 20 minutes.

"We usually sell about 100 pizzas a week," Nelson said. "And we sell about 20 more when there are gatherings for students in church basements after home football and basketball games."

Aside from being involved with the community, the Garden of Eden partners with local and state businesses and organizations. Kansas Wildflower Honey from Wilson, Kan., Marcon Pies from Washington, Kan., and elderberry juice from Wyldewood Cellars are just a few of the Kansas products the Garden of Eden carries.

One of the most popular local products the Garden of Eden carries is Little Ol' Cookie House cookie dough. The very popular Little Ol' Cookie House, located in Little River, makes cookie dough only for fund-raisers and for the Garden of Eden.

"We are the only retail store anywhere that sells Little Ol' Cookie House cookie dough," Nelson said.

Depending on the time of year, the produce section will have locally grown produce in the coolers.

"We choose to buy local tomatoes and asparagus," Nelson said. "It brings local farmers in to sell their products and buy my products."

While providing customers with an array of local and regional products is a big part of business, the Garden of Eden also offers a meat counter. In an age when grocery stores sell pre-packaged products, the Garden of Eden has a traditional self-serve meat counter.

"A customers order is all packaged the way they want it packaged," Nelson said.

"Our meat counter is about 42 percent of our business."

Customers come from as far away as McPherson and Hutchinson for the high-quality cuts of meat that the Garden of Eden offers. One of the biggest days of the month for the meat counter is steak night in Geneseo, Kan., 18 miles northwest of Little River. The American Legion in Geneseo usually buys 140 to 160 steaks for its monthly steak dinners.

The success of the Garden of Eden can be attributed to the efforts the Nelsons have made to keep their shelves stocked with products people want. With limited shelf space in their small store, it is important to get good brands and have a limited selection, Nelson said. The Garden of Eden usually supplies the most popular name brand items with a few off-brand selections. Nelson looks at what can be improved in each aisle every week.

"Don't fall into a rut," said Nelson. "You have to educate employees and customers on prices and keep up with the holiday items."

Carrying local products isn't the only way the Garden of Eden stays involved with the Little River community. The Garden of Eden supplies food for two local businesses, the Little River Learning Center and Fat Boyz Bar and Grill. The Learning Center preschool orders its food through the local grocer and has its own shelves in the back of the Garden of Eden that are stocked with all kinds of snacks and meals a young child would enjoy.  

Fat Boyz Bar and Grill, located two stores down the street, buys all the meat it serves from the Garden of Eden. Tom Heidorn, owner of Fat Boyz, places his order early in the day with the grocer's meat counter and steaks are delivered in the afternoon.

"The Garden of Eden has helped provide me with a consistent quality product through a partnership," Heidorn said.

The relationship between these two downtown businesses has been valuable. Fat Boyz serves about 800 meals a week, which keeps business flowing for the meat counter at the Garden of Eden. The grocer is featured on the front of Fat Boyz Menu and customers will often go over and look around the store while waiting for a table.

The two businesses even mention each other at the end of their radio advertisements. Heidorn said it is beneficial for small town businesses to form partnerships.

The local steaks served at Fat Boyz draw many people from out of town to this very popular restaurant.

"It's hard for locals to get a seat here with the crowds from out of town that come here on weekends," Nelson said.

With many small town grocers struggling to make ends meet, the Garden of Eden is alive and kicking.

"They are all involved in the community," said Reilly of the Nelsons' involvement. "Debra is on the school board and David is an adventuresome guy. He gets to work early and stays late."

With sales up 13 percent since opening the store, the Nelsons continue to strive to improve their store and their community.

"I believe it is imperative that we think outside the box to succeed," Nelson said. "It is all about creating an experience, even down to the bag."

One of the "bags" that is available is a small metal pail that customers can purchase. They receive a 25 percent discount on whatever they can fit in the pail.

"We have to compete for the young talent that will replace the baby boomers," said Nelson. "Competing means becoming a 'cool' community where up and coming generations will want to shop."