Kiester residents still seeking a grocery store

Published 10:14 am Monday, June 24, 2013

By Tim Krohn
Mankato Free Press

KIESTER — A group of Kiester residents is hoping to find a way to counter the powerful forces preventing small rural towns from having their own grocery store.

Kiester’s grocery store, which was owned by Brad Gohla of Elysian, has been closed since June 30, 2012.

Kiester’s grocery store, which was owned by Brad Gohla of Elysian, has been closed since June 30, 2012.

The Faribault County town of 501 residents lost its grocery store a year ago.

Judy Meyer, who grew up in the area and returned to retire there after 40 years in the Twin Cities, said a grocery store is a staple for rural communities.

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“I was very disappointed when the grocery store ended. I know how important it is for keeping a town alive and selling houses and keeping the elderly people here,” said Meyer, who is on an organizing board looking for ways to reopen the store.

After studying various options, the group settled on trying to create a for-profit cooperative to operate the store.

Don Nickel, vice president of First State Bank and one of the organizing board members, said the success of a co-op will hinge on whether they can raise $60,000 of working capital by selling shares in the co-op and seeking donations.

“If we raise enough capital, I don’t think we’ll have a problem getting enough financing for the rest of it,” Nickel said. He said the group estimates it will need less than $150,000 total to buy inventory and pay for initial operating expenses.

The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation has been working with the group and would likely provide a low-interest loan for the project if the initial capital is raised.

The group has an advantage over many other small towns that have lost grocery stores: The town of Kiester owns the relatively new building and equipment that housed the former grocery store and would be home to a co-op grocery.

Nickel said that when he came to town some 30 years ago there were two grocers, then one. When the owner of the store retired in the early 1990s, a couple took over his store but struggled. Faced with potential closure of the store, the town in 1995 built a new building, bought new equipment and leased it to the grocery store owners until they closed the business last year.

While Nickel said residents want a grocery store and are tired of driving to Wells, 15 miles away, or to Albert Lea to shop, the co-op idea still faces big hurdles. One is the fact that many of Kiester’s residents work in other larger communities where they can easily pick up groceries on the way home. Many work in Forest City, Iowa, at Winnebago Industries.

Besides raising funds, a new store faces challenges in finding suppliers who would deliver to small-town stores.

Nickel said Mason Brothers, a wholesaler in Wadena, specializes in supplying small-town grocers. “The stores they deal with are very positive about them.”

A bigger challenge may be in getting a full-service meat counter, something vital to a successful grocery store said Nickel and Meyer.

Hiring a trained meat cutter may be cost prohibitive they said, so they’re looking for alternatives.

“We’ve been talking to Wiste’s Meat Market in Janesville, and they’ve been very supportive,” Meyer said. “They’ve offered to train or mentor someone who might be interested in doing it here, which might be less expensive.”

She said the group is open to any ideas to make a plan work.

“We’re trying to be creative. Maybe combining another store with it, because the building is plenty big. Or whatever else might work.”

The group is holding an information meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Kee Theater in Kiester.