New Era for Local Grocery Store

When the grocery store in Elwood, Nebraska, closed in January 2012, Sharlette Schwenninger and LeahAnn Brell went into action.

Schwenninger and Brell are Village Board members and leaders on the Chamber of Commerce in Elwood, a rural town of 707 people in south-central Nebraska. Determined to bring groceries back to Elwood, they scheduled a community meeting and distributed a community interest survey door to door.

Within a month, over 100 community members attended the meeting to learn the survey results and support efforts to open a new grocery store. At the close of the meeting, 10 volunteers formed a steering committee to move the project forward.

The committee members’ experience ranged from business management to accounting to construction. “It was an amazing group of people to work with,” said Schwenninger. The steering committee met weekly, with subcommittees for finance, facilities, surveys, marketing, and incorporation – working long hours and reporting back.

After exploring several business models, the steering committee decided to incorporate as a cooperative. The cooperative structure allowed community members to have a stake in their own market. “Elwood is only 14 miles from Lexington, and it’s easy for many people to pick up groceries on their way home from work,” explained Schwenninger. “We wanted to give people a good reason to buy in town.”

Over the summer of 2012, organizers began a heavily advertised membership drive. They sold $500 shares to community members, who would own the grocery store collectively. Once the membership drive reached its “go” threshold (75 percent of the budget secured), the cooperative purchased the old grocery store building and began remodeling. Community volunteers helped throughout the process, from demolition to stocking shelves.

Thirteen months after the closing of Elwood’s grocery store, the Elwood Hometown Cooperative Market opened for business in February 2013. So far, the community response has been overwhelmingly positive, and the store is expanding its services and hours. “We’re at or ahead of our projections, and that’s very gratifying,” said Schwenninger.

“This is a great example of doing a co-op right,” said Jim Crandall, Outreach Program Coordinator for the Nebraska Cooperative Development Center, who helped guide the cooperative’s formation. “They planned that whole business on paper first. They did their research and asked lots of questions, and they weren’t afraid of the answers they got. If there were problems, they mitigated them and moved on.”

The Elwood Hometown Cooperative Market has had its share of difficulties, including leaky roofs, management troubles, and equipment problems, but it has adapted quickly and is now poised for long-term success.

Moving forward, the Elwood community itself will sustain the store. “It’s a self-fulfilling thing,” said Crandall. Cooperative members form the backbone of the business, and they benefit from it most.

In Elwood, a rural community worked together to save their grocery store. With the support and commitment of a whole town behind it, the Elwood Hometown Cooperative Market has a bright future in a vibrant, engaged rural community.