Grocery store owners’ passion project combats food insecurity in southwest Iowa

Small Towns
Farm and Food

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Angelyn Wang contributed to this story.

From singing in U.S. Air Force choirs to owning businesses together, Theo and Bonnie Ramsey have come a long way since they met.

While Theo is from Seattle, Washington, Bonnie grew up on a farm 8 miles south of Lenox, Iowa, population 1,339. The couple wanted to raise their kids there, but Bonnie took notice of the state of the surrounding small communities.

“On a date night, we started talking about food deserts, and how we could help the communities around us,” said Bonnie. “Real estate values drop 15% with no grocery store in town, and health concerns are harder to deal with in a food desert. Retaining schools, manufacturing, and jobs in town really affects community development. We felt a responsibility: How do we sustain our community?”

They had served their country in the military and decided it was now time to serve their community. Along with their passion to pitch in, the couple’s hobby of visiting and studying grocery stores as they traveled the country while in the Air Force and after leaving active duty became the inspiration to open their own business. 

In April 2015, Theo and Bonnie took over ownership of what was formerly Cheese’s Food Center in Lenox and transformed it into Ramsey’s Market. They have since added Ramsey's Ace Hardware in Lenox and a second Ramsey's Market location in Manning, Iowa.

“We love people, and we love making folks' lives just a little easier by providing the food and hardware that people need,” said Bonnie. “But most of all we love to brighten up someone's day whenever we get the chance.”

They opened Ramsey’s Ace Hardware in 2017 and Fresh Out of the Box in 2021.

“We are using new technology with Fresh Out of the Box to bring groceries and hardware as close to your door as possible,” said Bonnie. “Think of it like a post office box for ice cream. And at the same time the idea is a timeless throwback to the days when you would call in your order to your local grocer and they would have your groceries ready when you arrived and bring them out and load them into your trunk.”

Fresh Out of the Box lockers are located in Griswold, Shelby, and Walnut, Iowa. Customers order by 5 p.m. and get their orders delivered to the locker by 5 p.m. the next day. They can shop directly from the website and schedule home delivery or get their order dropped at a locker. Customers can also order from the adjacent Ramsey’s Ace Hardware and have those items included in their grocery order. There is a two-hour delivery radius.

“We aimed to build a store that is the hub for fresh food and hardware, invest in community success, cultivate the destination for friends to connect, and provide traditional charm and modern excitement,” Bonnie said.

Part of that community success includes working toward finding better access to food, as food insecurity is one of the most significant issues facing rural southwest Iowa communities today.

“This has been our passion project—you find a need, you fill a need,” said Bonnie. “Iowa has lost 30 grocery stores that were involved in a shareholders group and a lot of the members are now gone. Towns with populations of 1,500 or less in any state have the threat of becoming food deserts.”

Bonnie says it’s much harder for an independent grocery business to stay in operation, as technology and pricing have changed in the years they’ve been open.

“There was no Amazon, HelloFresh, or other competitors,” she said. “Dollar General takes 30% of sales when they come into town, groceries run on 1% margins. Once a Dollar General is in town, small grocers might make it another two years but that’s about it. When Dollar General goes into a town with a grocer nearing retirement, it’s even easier to shut down.”

The couple works with local producers to get their products into Fresh Out of the Box by selling local honey, beef sticks, jerky, summer sausage, various meats, BBQ sauces, sweet corn, watermelons, and other produce.

In May 2023, they partnered with Taylor County Cattlemen to hand out 500 free meals in their community. A local baker also wants to promote and sell its products, and Bonnie and Theo are hopeful to be able to rent out space to it at some point. 

“Fresh Out of the Box needs to grow with integrity and with the purpose that it began with,” said Bonnie. “How do we not lose the original components with scaling? Everyone has to scale to remain viable. How do we accomplish this without losing the integrity of the past? We need to leverage technology while keeping our roots like we’re delivering to Grandma’s house.”

Bonnie says whether they were going through joys or hardships, she’s thankful for every mistake they made while starting their businesses, and they have every intention to continue working for their community.

“When starting a business, you are naive and that’s a blessing,” she said. “If you knew everything you know now, it would scare you. Prioritize the customer, and if your neighbor is in need, you help them.”

This case study series highlights an innovative local foods access initiative happening in southwest Iowa. It includes a variety of initiatives and projects that can serve as idea-starters to incorporate in other communities. The Center for Rural Affairs is able to assist in developing local food access plans across the region. Click here for more information.