Plains towns fighting hard to hang onto rural grocers

The Denver Post | By Karen Auge | June 27, 2010

Osborne's Supermarket checker Dorothy Osborne, left, sacker Roger Trainer and customer Betty Hamilton puzzle over a price at the Hugo store that's been open for nearly 35 years. | Photo by Judy DeHaas, The Denver Post

HUGO — The instant she saw Virginia Petersen propelling her motorized scooter between aisles, a heaping basket of groceries teetering on her lap and oxygen tank rolling alongside her, Megan Hohl moved in.

"Virginia! Are you finished shopping? Let me take this up to the front for you," Hohl said, and walked the basket up to one of the two checkout stands in Osborne's Supermarket, which her grandparents opened 35 years ago.

This is grocery shopping, Hugo-style, and it hasn't changed much since Creighton and Dorothy Osborne opened the store in 1975. Nor will it, if Hohl and her husband, Lucas, have anything to say about it.

It's more about keeping Hugo — population 771 — going than selling milk and bread, Hohl said. "We have a great responsibility."

The idea that getting healthy food or staying fit can be a problem in the hinterlands contradicts most everyone's idealized image of rural life: fresh air, hard work, wheat rippling in the breeze.

The truth is, rural counties, especially on the Eastern Plains, have some of the state's highest rates of obesity and diabetes, along with lower rates of exercise and healthy eating. That's just part of the reason small communities in eastern Colorado, in Kansas, in Nebraska and across the nation are fighting hard to hang onto stores like Osborne's Supermarket, which serve as vital links between rural residents and nutrition and provide economic and social sustenance, too.

"It's an issue, first, of food access, and secondly, of economic development," said David Procter, director of Kansas State University's Center of Engagement and Community Development. The problem is significant enough that Kansas State University has launched a Rural Grocery Initiative to save small-town stores. In the past three years, Kansas has seen 82 grocery stores in communities of fewer than 2,500 people close their doors.

"These stores may be one of the town's largest employers," Procter said. "We believe they are critical infrastructure in any small, rural town, like the school or the post office. If that goes, it's a dagger in the heart of that little town."

There are a lot of hands on that dagger.

When Procter's group surveyed small-town store owners, they reported that their biggest threat came from the so-called big-box retail chains, even if those chains are 40 miles, 50 miles or more away.

"We are this culture that says, 'Hey, let's hop in the car and go,' " he said.
As true as that is in the suburbs, it's even more true of people for whom driving 5 miles to their next-door neighbor's house is routine.
"We're also a culture that says, 'I'll drive 40 miles to save two bucks,' " Procter said.

Twenty-seven years ago, Brenda Dutro and her husband, Carl, took over running Osborne's Supermarket from Brenda's parents, Creighton and Dorothy Osborne. At the end of the month, the Dutros will hand over the reins to their daughter Megan and her husband, Lucas Hohl.

In nearly three decades, Brenda Dutro became familiar with that drive-anywhere culture.

"We do still have people who drive to Wal-Mart, about 87 miles" to Falcon, near Colorado Springs, she said.

That's one thing in good weather.  But when 4 feet of snow blows across the highway for weeks at a time, driving becomes a bit more complicated.

The 637 or so residents of Walsh, a little Baca County town closer to the Oklahoma state line than to Denver, found that out in the now-legendary winter of 2006, when the snow wouldn't stop. A lot of cattle starved and the people felt like they might, too.

Their town grocery had closed, and the nearest food stores were either 30 miles west in Springfield or 30 miles east in Kansas.

Even in good weather, that was hard for many in town.

"We're an aging population, and a lot of them don't drive," said Rick Mills, a Walsh businessman.
Weeks of blowing snow that made those long-distance trips all but impossible persuaded town leaders to act.

The town created its own store, with pretty much all residents buying a share, and a group of business leaders as the board of directors.

"About everybody in town is a stockholder, whether it's a $50 share or $5,000," said Mills, the board's chairman.
Mills' business ventures — an auto parts store in Walsh, oil and gas interests across the plains — are as diverse as they are far-flung. But grocer was an altogether unfamiliar hat for him.

"The board was as green as the lettuce in the produce department when we started," Mills said. "We knew nothing about the grocery business, but they trusted us anyway."

This year, the Walsh Community Grocery will make a profit, Mills said, and may even pay stockholders a dividend.

The tale of the plucky little town that saved its own bacon has gotten Walsh a spotlight in media as diverse as National Public Radio and People magazine.

It's also serving as inspiration for towns all over the plains. Earlier this month, Mills was the keynote speaker at a rural grocery store summit hosted by Procter and Kansas State.

Business and town leaders from 13 states peppered him with questions about how the store works — and whether the Walsh model could work in Kansas or Nebraska or Minnesota.
Fresh food near, and yet far

Measuring rural health accurately can be difficult because with such small populations, one or two cases of diabetes can shoot the entire county's rate sky-high. Whatever health problems rural residents do have, they certainly don't all come from their eating habits.

People tend to be older in many of those counties. Farm labor, like every other kind of work, is becoming increasingly mechanized. And while rural residents may literally be surrounded by fresh food, government regulations and free-market economies of scale can prevent them from eating much of what they grow.

"It's crazy that in western Kansas and eastern Colorado you have all this food being grown, but very little of it makes it to a local outlet," Procter said.

Crazy but true.

Dutro said Osborne's used to buy strawberries from Rocky Ford growers, about 90 miles away. "But gas got so expensive, so now we get them from a distributor" — who likely trucks them in from California, if not Mexico.
Produce is a challenge for any grocer; it's even more so for rural ones.

"We do try to carry — I don't know as I'd call it exotic items, because we can't have everything in a small store — but we can have 95 percent of what they need," Mills said of the Walsh store.

Nearby in Springfield, where wheat, corn and wind are big parts of the economy, residents are taking up backyard gardening and exercise.

Besieged by high rates of obesity and heart disease, the town recently drew up goals for getting healthy. And 68 of Southeast Colorado Hospital's 100 employees competed for weeks in what they were calling "The Biggest Loser" until someone brought up copyright infringement.

All that has brought a focus on healthy eating. The town's one grocery store stocks produce basics, said Martha Cook, who is in charge of hospital payroll and was a weight-loss contest team leader.

"We don't have a big variety of fruits and vegetables. That's limited, but we do have grapes, apples, oranges," she said.
At Osborne's this month, besides the usual — bananas, lettuce, potatoes for eating and some rather gamey seed potatoes for planting — there was the perhaps unexpected: asparagus ($3.19 a pound), jicama ($2.19 a pound), and even mangoes ($1.49 a pound).

Dutro said she tried carrying organic produce, but that experiment was killed by the same villain that ended the store's dalliance with staying open on Sundays: cost.

"The cost was so much higher, and they didn't last," she said. "It just wasn't cost-effective."

Short shelf life means a lot of waste with fruits and veggies. But Hohl said they try to donate as much as they can to local farmers for compost and animal feed, and use whatever they can't.

As she spoke, Hohl carried a crate of blackish bananas to the fridge. By afternoon, she would turn it into banana bread, which sells for $6 a loaf.

The store doesn't exactly have a bakery permit. "But we're grandfathered in," Hohl said, "as long as that oven holds out" — and pointed to a vintage appliance in the corner.
The bananas and most everything else in Osborne's come from Amarillo-based Affiliated Foods.

Affiliated serves smaller stores that have names like Ringo's Food Market or the Rainbow Lodge & Grocery — there's no King Soopers or Safeway among its 44 Colorado clients. Still, it requires a minimum order of $15,000 a week, said Mills, the Walsh businessman.

Creighton Osborne came to Hugo to teach music in the high school after he graduated from the University of Denver. He hadn't thought much about staying, but he met Dorothy and pretty soon, he'd passed 24 years at Hugo High.

When he retired, he found a second career: Osborne's Supermarket, which opened in 1975. There were four grocery stores in town then, he said. "Five of us just couldn't keep going. They kind of left voluntarily."

Osborne is 86 now and Dorothy is 77, but they come by the store most Wednesdays. That's senior day at Osborne's, when the town's more venerable residents get 5 percent off their orders. On Fridays, Osborne's will deliver if you can't get to the store — provided you get your order in early.
On a Wednesday morning last week, generation No. 4, in the person of 5-month-old Gwen Hohl, relaxed in the back of the store in a comfy office chair getting plenty of attention from her grandpa and her great-grandpa. Maybe, she's already absorbing from her mom the finer points of large- scale corn shucking, and from her dad, the ins and outs of ordering fresh meat.

Up front, her great-grandmother chatted with customers while Dee Lockhart, an Osborne's employee on and off for seven years, rang up Virginia Petersen's order.

"Oh, you don't get this service in big-city stores," Petersen said. "If they didn't have this store, I couldn't live here."

Karen Auge: 303-954-1733 or kauge@denverpost.com

http://www.denverpost.com/technology/ci_15386845

Issues: 

The Denver Post | By Karen Auge | June 27, 2010

Osborne's Supermarket checker Dorothy Osborne, left, sacker Roger Trainer and customer Betty Hamilton puzzle over a price at the Hugo store that's been open for nearly 35 years. | Photo by Judy DeHaas, The Denver Post

HUGO — The instant she saw Virginia Petersen propelling her motorized scooter between aisles, a heaping basket of groceries teetering on her lap and oxygen tank rolling alongside her, Megan Hohl moved in.

"Virginia! Are you finished shopping? Let me take this up to the front for you," Hohl said, and walked the basket up to one of the two checkout stands in Osborne's Supermarket, which her grandparents opened 35 years ago.

This is grocery shopping, Hugo-style, and it hasn't changed much since Creighton and Dorothy Osborne opened the store in 1975. Nor will it, if Hohl and her husband, Lucas, have anything to say about it.

It's more about keeping Hugo — population 771 — going than selling milk and bread, Hohl said. "We have a great responsibility."

The idea that getting healthy food or staying fit can be a problem in the hinterlands contradicts most everyone's idealized image of rural life: fresh air, hard work, wheat rippling in the breeze.

The truth is, rural counties, especially on the Eastern Plains, have some of the state's highest rates of obesity and diabetes, along with lower rates of exercise and healthy eating. That's just part of the reason small communities in eastern Colorado, in Kansas, in Nebraska and across the nation are fighting hard to hang onto stores like Osborne's Supermarket, which serve as vital links between rural residents and nutrition and provide economic and social sustenance, too.

"It's an issue, first, of food access, and secondly, of economic development," said David Procter, director of Kansas State University's Center of Engagement and Community Development. The problem is significant enough that Kansas State University has launched a Rural Grocery Initiative to save small-town stores. In the past three years, Kansas has seen 82 grocery stores in communities of fewer than 2,500 people close their doors.

"These stores may be one of the town's largest employers," Procter said. "We believe they are critical infrastructure in any small, rural town, like the school or the post office. If that goes, it's a dagger in the heart of that little town."

There are a lot of hands on that dagger.

When Procter's group surveyed small-town store owners, they reported that their biggest threat came from the so-called big-box retail chains, even if those chains are 40 miles, 50 miles or more away.

"We are this culture that says, 'Hey, let's hop in the car and go,' " he said.
As true as that is in the suburbs, it's even more true of people for whom driving 5 miles to their next-door neighbor's house is routine.
"We're also a culture that says, 'I'll drive 40 miles to save two bucks,' " Procter said.

Twenty-seven years ago, Brenda Dutro and her husband, Carl, took over running Osborne's Supermarket from Brenda's parents, Creighton and Dorothy Osborne. At the end of the month, the Dutros will hand over the reins to their daughter Megan and her husband, Lucas Hohl.

In nearly three decades, Brenda Dutro became familiar with that drive-anywhere culture.

"We do still have people who drive to Wal-Mart, about 87 miles" to Falcon, near Colorado Springs, she said.

That's one thing in good weather.  But when 4 feet of snow blows across the highway for weeks at a time, driving becomes a bit more complicated.

The 637 or so residents of Walsh, a little Baca County town closer to the Oklahoma state line than to Denver, found that out in the now-legendary winter of 2006, when the snow wouldn't stop. A lot of cattle starved and the people felt like they might, too.

Their town grocery had closed, and the nearest food stores were either 30 miles west in Springfield or 30 miles east in Kansas.

Even in good weather, that was hard for many in town.

"We're an aging population, and a lot of them don't drive," said Rick Mills, a Walsh businessman.
Weeks of blowing snow that made those long-distance trips all but impossible persuaded town leaders to act.

The town created its own store, with pretty much all residents buying a share, and a group of business leaders as the board of directors.

"About everybody in town is a stockholder, whether it's a $50 share or $5,000," said Mills, the board's chairman.
Mills' business ventures — an auto parts store in Walsh, oil and gas interests across the plains — are as diverse as they are far-flung. But grocer was an altogether unfamiliar hat for him.

"The board was as green as the lettuce in the produce department when we started," Mills said. "We knew nothing about the grocery business, but they trusted us anyway."

This year, the Walsh Community Grocery will make a profit, Mills said, and may even pay stockholders a dividend.

The tale of the plucky little town that saved its own bacon has gotten Walsh a spotlight in media as diverse as National Public Radio and People magazine.

It's also serving as inspiration for towns all over the plains. Earlier this month, Mills was the keynote speaker at a rural grocery store summit hosted by Procter and Kansas State.

Business and town leaders from 13 states peppered him with questions about how the store works — and whether the Walsh model could work in Kansas or Nebraska or Minnesota.
Fresh food near, and yet far

Measuring rural health accurately can be difficult because with such small populations, one or two cases of diabetes can shoot the entire county's rate sky-high. Whatever health problems rural residents do have, they certainly don't all come from their eating habits.

People tend to be older in many of those counties. Farm labor, like every other kind of work, is becoming increasingly mechanized. And while rural residents may literally be surrounded by fresh food, government regulations and free-market economies of scale can prevent them from eating much of what they grow.

"It's crazy that in western Kansas and eastern Colorado you have all this food being grown, but very little of it makes it to a local outlet," Procter said.

Crazy but true.

Dutro said Osborne's used to buy strawberries from Rocky Ford growers, about 90 miles away. "But gas got so expensive, so now we get them from a distributor" — who likely trucks them in from California, if not Mexico.
Produce is a challenge for any grocer; it's even more so for rural ones.

"We do try to carry — I don't know as I'd call it exotic items, because we can't have everything in a small store — but we can have 95 percent of what they need," Mills said of the Walsh store.

Nearby in Springfield, where wheat, corn and wind are big parts of the economy, residents are taking up backyard gardening and exercise.

Besieged by high rates of obesity and heart disease, the town recently drew up goals for getting healthy. And 68 of Southeast Colorado Hospital's 100 employees competed for weeks in what they were calling "The Biggest Loser" until someone brought up copyright infringement.

All that has brought a focus on healthy eating. The town's one grocery store stocks produce basics, said Martha Cook, who is in charge of hospital payroll and was a weight-loss contest team leader.

"We don't have a big variety of fruits and vegetables. That's limited, but we do have grapes, apples, oranges," she said.
At Osborne's this month, besides the usual — bananas, lettuce, potatoes for eating and some rather gamey seed potatoes for planting — there was the perhaps unexpected: asparagus ($3.19 a pound), jicama ($2.19 a pound), and even mangoes ($1.49 a pound).

Dutro said she tried carrying organic produce, but that experiment was killed by the same villain that ended the store's dalliance with staying open on Sundays: cost.

"The cost was so much higher, and they didn't last," she said. "It just wasn't cost-effective."

Short shelf life means a lot of waste with fruits and veggies. But Hohl said they try to donate as much as they can to local farmers for compost and animal feed, and use whatever they can't.

As she spoke, Hohl carried a crate of blackish bananas to the fridge. By afternoon, she would turn it into banana bread, which sells for $6 a loaf.

The store doesn't exactly have a bakery permit. "But we're grandfathered in," Hohl said, "as long as that oven holds out" — and pointed to a vintage appliance in the corner.
The bananas and most everything else in Osborne's come from Amarillo-based Affiliated Foods.

Affiliated serves smaller stores that have names like Ringo's Food Market or the Rainbow Lodge & Grocery — there's no King Soopers or Safeway among its 44 Colorado clients. Still, it requires a minimum order of $15,000 a week, said Mills, the Walsh businessman.

Creighton Osborne came to Hugo to teach music in the high school after he graduated from the University of Denver. He hadn't thought much about staying, but he met Dorothy and pretty soon, he'd passed 24 years at Hugo High.

When he retired, he found a second career: Osborne's Supermarket, which opened in 1975. There were four grocery stores in town then, he said. "Five of us just couldn't keep going. They kind of left voluntarily."

Osborne is 86 now and Dorothy is 77, but they come by the store most Wednesdays. That's senior day at Osborne's, when the town's more venerable residents get 5 percent off their orders. On Fridays, Osborne's will deliver if you can't get to the store — provided you get your order in early.
On a Wednesday morning last week, generation No. 4, in the person of 5-month-old Gwen Hohl, relaxed in the back of the store in a comfy office chair getting plenty of attention from her grandpa and her great-grandpa. Maybe, she's already absorbing from her mom the finer points of large- scale corn shucking, and from her dad, the ins and outs of ordering fresh meat.

Up front, her great-grandmother chatted with customers while Dee Lockhart, an Osborne's employee on and off for seven years, rang up Virginia Petersen's order.

"Oh, you don't get this service in big-city stores," Petersen said. "If they didn't have this store, I couldn't live here."

Karen Auge: 303-954-1733 or kauge@denverpost.com

http://www.denverpost.com/technology/ci_15386845