Rural grocer reinvests in community's future
APPLETON, Minn. — In a span of 16 days last month, workers removed and replaced all of the shelving, restocked them all, and poured 102 yards of concrete to build a new floor while keeping the doors of Don's Food Pride open for all but six and a half hours of its regular schedule.
"Looking good, Tim,'' said a customer pushing a cart down the newly polished floor in Appleton's grocery store last week.
Store owners Tim and Jodi Dittes are hearing that a lot these days as they complete a major upgrade to the community's grocery store. They've replaced all of its refrigerated display cases with energy-efficient, closed-door units. And, they've installed energy-efficient LED lighting throughout.
The store's new environment is brighter and more open, with wide shopping aisles and more open area due to a decision to shorten the length of the aisles with the new display shelving.
It all started with a decision to replace the cases for the deli and fresh and processed meats, and grew from there, according to Tim Dittes. An incentive program offered by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development through the city of Appleton to businesses that reinvest in the community made it possible to take on the biggest project, pouring concrete over a floor area roughly the size of two NBA basketball courts.
"For a town this size, it's a pretty darn nice store,'' said Tim Dittes, who should know. His family has been in the small-town grocery business since 1977, when his father, Don, purchased this store. Tim and Jodi Dittes now operate grocery stores in Appleton, Dawson, Minn., and three rural communities in Iowa: Laurens, Sac City and Ida Grove.
One of the most immediate challenges of running rural groceries is finding help, Tim Dittes said. The Appleton store currently has 17 employees, but should have 20, he said.
Rural store owners in Minnesota said competition from large chain grocery stores, high operating costs, and narrow profit margins represent major challenges to their businesses, according to a 2015 survey of rural grocery store owners by the University of Minnesota Extension.
There's plenty of competition for the Dittes family, with a Dollar General store located in town and chain grocery stores found in regional centers within an hour's drive.
Appleton, population 1,412, offers its own challenges too. It has an aging population and a higher proportion of low-income residents than many communities, noted Dittes.
The closing of the Prairie Correctional Facility in 2010 was certainly felt at the store, he added. It once employed 365 people, with 85 of them listing Appleton addresses, according to information from the city-county partnership seeking its reopening.
Dittes remains hopeful the privately owned prison will be reopened.
Most important, he is betting that reinvesting in the store will allow it to retain its customers and attract new ones.
"If you put it back into it, people will come. You're better for it,'' said Dittes of the decision to re-invest in the store.
Along with the reinvestment, the full-service store also strives to meet the needs of its market. It's very aggressive on meat, he said. It's price-sensitive as well, well aware of community's aging demographics and income levels.
The store also carries inventory to serve the community's changing ethnic and racial mix. The town is home to a number of Hispanic families, as well as an estimated 140 people from Micronesia. That's roughly 10 percent of the town's overall population, he pointed out.
And like other stores everywhere, Dittes said the store's inventory today includes a larger selection of processed and convenient food items for the busy lifestyles of people today. A deli and wide selection of fresh produce also meet today's market needs.
The store owners said previous decisions to grow the business to include the Dawson and Iowa stores are important to its success. There's more buying power because of it.
They also pointed to the help from the city of Appleton, and a rebate program for energy efficiency offered by their utility, Otter Tail Power, as important factors in their decision to take on so major an upgrade to the store in Appleton's downtown.
The improvements in energy-efficient equipment and the new floor will produce savings in the long run, and the future matters. The Appleton store's manager is Jodi's daughter, Jourdan Erickson. She represents the family's third generation to run the store.
Tim Dittes said the response from customers to the improvements has been very positive. There's still some cosmetic work to complete, but he said the store should be ready to show when it hosts a re-opening celebration starting Oct. 11.