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'It’s been proven that if a town loses a grocery store, the town dies.' Michigan, N.D., grocery store manager thinks outside of the box

In this North Dakota community of 276, the Job Development Authority stepped in to save the local grocery store.

Michigan Home Town Foods' assistant manager Ashley Parsons, left, and manager Arliss Spillane share a laugh in the back room of the popular grocery store in downtown Michigan. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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MICHIGAN, N.D. -- Customers of Michigan Hometown Foods look forward to what will be in store for them when they go shopping.

From homemade sausage to fresh fruit trays and Thai take-out, the grocery staff, through close observation and one-on-one conversations, has the food items customers want to buy.

It's been a little more than a year since the Job Development Authority in the northeast North Dakota town of 276 purchased the inventory of the store for $48,000 and hired Arliss Spillane to manage it. Community-owned stores are not unique in North Dakota as rural areas search for ways to keep their grocery stores, said John Dyste, North Dakota Grocers Association president.

By all appearances, the project is working. The JDA purchased the building that houses Michigan Hometown Foods a decade ago and rented it to subsequent store managers. After the last manager went out of business, the JDA decided to purchase the store's inventory and pay the manager and other employees a wage, said Rodney Fisk, a Michigan Job Development Authority member who encouraged Spillane to manage the store.

“I’m happy with how the store is performing, and I’m pleased with the community support,” Spillane said. “It’s amazing, the young families who shop here.”


One of the keys to the grocery store’s success is Spillane and the employees who work for her, Fisk said.

“I think she does have a fantastic job. It takes a special person to run a store in a small town," said Fisk. "You have to be diplomatic. You have to be friendly to all of the customers.”

“You have to listen to your customers and what they want and you have to be versatile,” Spillane said. “You have to be flexible and think outside the box.”

One of the ways she does that is to make food that's ready to cook. During the summer, Michigan Hometown Foods draws campers from Stump Lake who want to buy meat they can throw on the grill, Spillane said. Regular customers come from nearby towns, including Petersburg, Dahlen, McVille.

Spillane learned to cut meat from a longtime meat cutter who worked for Mason Brothers, the Wadena grocery wholesale distributor from which she buys products for Michigan Hometown Foods. Spillane is passing on her meat-cutting skills to Chris Botner so he can take over for her in a few years. Spillane also is mentoring Ashley Parsons, the store’s assistant manager.

But there was one condition for coming out of retirement, said Spillane. She intends to train young people to manage the store when she retires for good.

“Arliss is amazing. She knows a lot,” Parsons said.

One of the things Parsons learned from Spillane is to be innovative, Parsons said. For example, cutting different kinds of fruit and putting them on a small tray has been popular with elderly people who don’t want to buy large quantities. Making brats also has been a winner for the store.


“They fly off the shelves," she said.

Employing Ning Seales, who frequently makes fresh green salads and Thai food for takeout, also has boosted grocery sales at Michigan Hometown Foods.

Spillane puts in long hours at Michigan Hometown Foods -- she’s typically at the store by 6 a.m. to organize her work day -- but she enjoys it.

“It’s a fun business. I have the best crew you would ever hope to have,” Spillane said.

She’s a firm believer that it's a necessity to have a grocery store in a small town. Elderly people who live in Michigan especially need a grocery store because some might not have access to transportation to another town. Meanwhile, having a grocery store keeps the community vital, Spillane said.

“It’s been proven that if a town loses a grocery store, the town dies,” she said.

Chris Botner is the meat cutter at the Michigan Hometown Foods store and like other employees does a variety of jobs. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Related Topics: SMALL BUSINESS
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