St. Paul Supermarket

By Glendolyn Neely and Greg Peterson

St. Paul, Kan., is as unique of a community as they come. In a town that contains more than 50 small businesses, many of the residents rely on the local grocery store for many of their needs.

St. PaulBut the grocery store relies on the community almost as much as the community relies on it.

The market was built in 2008 with a $500,000 loan over 10 years when the city of St. Paul decided the town could no longer go without a local grocery store.

"This is a very, very unique situation – they had been without a grocery store for 20 years," said St. Paul Supermarket manager Sue Renfro. "We have a considerable elderly population here. St. Paul is a community where if you're born here, you die here. It's a very close-knit community; it's a kind, carrying, and giving community."

St. Paul is a town of about 650 people. The median age, according to the U.S. Census Bureau is about 40 years old. In Kansas, the average household income is about $47,000; in St. Paul it is $33,000.

Since the opening of the store, St. Paul residents have readily adapted to a new way of grocery shopping, one that includes the conveniences of short-distance shopping and deliveries to their doorsteps.

"The people will call in with their list and the market fulfills is and delivers it," Renfro said. "One older lady brings in her list and while an employee gets the items off of the list, she will walk down the aisle and look at the specials or discounts to see if there is anything else she may want. This saves time and effort for her."

Tom Clelland, a customer from Pittsburg, said, "The quality is good and the people are good. They are professional and they provide personal service."

"You can't beat the personal service you get here," said Clelland's wife, Michelle. "It's much better than Wal-Mart. I don't like Wal-Mart. I will only go there for other things besides groceries."

Registers at St. PaulOne example of this personal service is when Renfro serves a customer from Kansas City who visits the grocery store only because Renfro orders a special delivery of Brooks Ketchup for him.

"Wal-Mart doesn't give you any kind of a discount, you buy what they got," Renfro said, "I order what you want."

Employment

The store currently employs 13 people, not counting Renfro and her husband, Joe, who is currently not working because of a stroke he suffered.

Renfro said, "I pay minimum wage. I don't ever give raises, my employees that have been here for a while and do ordering and run their departments – they're on a bonus system. After 15 years of learning once I give an employee a raise then the thought strikes them, 'You know what: With my raise I can cut back to working four days a week instead of five and make the same amount money. So one day a week I'll just call in sick.' That means I have to do my work plus their work."

Still, despite the low pay, employees appreciate their jobs.

"I like working here because it is quieter and I get to know pretty much everyone who shops here," said Savanna O'Toole, who works as a cashier at the store. "There is not a big rush of people coming in and out like at bigger grocery stores."

In a small town such as St. Paul, there is a symbiotic relationship that exists between the people and the local businesses. The community supports the grocery store just as much as the grocery store supports the community.

"The community is key to any store or business staying open," Renfro said. "We have over 50 small businesses in this town and they would not be able to stay in business without the people in this town purchasing from them."

For example, Renfro said, "Our school's concession stand and the grocery store are important to one another. The concession stand buys from the store at discount prices which helps both out."

But the grocery store also tries to save customers time and money. High school student Brett Hutcherson, who also works as a cashier in the store, said his family is from St. Paul and does most of its shopping at the store.

"There's no reason to drive any farther," Hutcherson said.

The nearest Wal-Mart is about 16 miles away in Parsons, to the south, or Chanute, to the north. The extra cost in gas can seem like a lot to a person on a tight budget.

Renfro said, "To hopefully bring new people in (St. Paul) they needed a grocery store; a community without a grocery store, when you have to drive 10 to 15 miles for a grocery store, it's a burden."

Family Business

The store has in a way turned into a family commitment for the Renfros. Sue is the manager of the store. Her husband, Joe, runs the deli. Their daughter helps with the finances, and when they are running low on help, their grandchildren stock the shelves or run the cash register.

"My granddaughter is one of the best workers I've got," Renfro said.    

Renfro plans to continue to run the store for the foreseeable future, serving a town that appreciates what the grocery store she runs provides.

"The way I was brought up is that everyone needs to be busy and work. If I didn't work I would probably volunteer," Renfro said. "I love it. I just love it. This is where I want to be."