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Surviving and thriving

Lake City Food Center owners redefine the small-town grocery store

-Messenger photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby
Eric Peterson, left, and his wife, Suzy Peterson, pose at the Lake City Food Center. The two own and operate the store.

LAKE CITY — When the Lake City Food Center hosted its annual fresh-produce sale, Suzy Peterson got a kick out of recording customers’ checks following the big one-day event on June 5.

“People wrote the checks to The Grocery Store, Lake City Value and other names,” said Peterson, who owns and operates the Lake City Food Center with her husband, Eric.

The numbers caught Eric Peterson’s attention.

“We had a 28 percent increase in total store sales the day of the fresh produce sale,” he said.

Popular promotions like this continue to grow the Lake City Food Center’s business.

“A grocery store is a basic necessity, especially in rural communities,” said Jill Heisterkamp, of Rockwell City, executive director of the Calhoun County Economic Development Corp. “The Lake City Food Center is so important to the economic well-being of Lake City, and right now, all of Calhoun County, since it’s the only store we currently have in the county.”

Three key factors drive the success of the Lake City Food Center, including:

1. Skilled management. Eric Peterson, who grew up in Spencer, began his career in the grocery business at age 27. In the late 1980s, he became a department manager at Cub Foods in the Twin Cities. He later spent about 16 years as a SuperValu account manager who called on stores in southwest Minnesota, northwest Iowa and parts of the Dakotas.

“I observed what worked and what didn’t work in small-town grocery stores,” said Eric Peterson, who purchased the Lake City Food Center in 2014. “Order items as they sell. Don’t over-leverage yourself. Meet customers’ needs.”

“Treat people fairly,” Suzy Peterson added. “We came here to make a living, not a fortune.”

2. Adaptability. Changing times influence customers’ shopping needs. While the grocery store in Lake City used to devote a large chunk of shelf space to Hamburger Helper, for example, today’s younger shoppers want fewer processed foods and more fresh produce.

“That’s why we’ve expanded the fresh produce section to include colored peppers, avocados and more,” Suzy Peterson said.

3. Commitment to the community. While the COVID-19 pandemic led to temporary shortages of toilet paper and other basics this spring, the Lake City Food Center has remained open seven days a week and continues to offer home delivery around the area.

“We’re blessed to have the Lake City Food Center, which carries a great variety of items,” Heisterkamp said. “I hardly ever need to travel outside of Calhoun County to get my groceries.”

The Lake City Food Center contains roughly 10,000 items.

“People often tell us we have a better selection and better prices than they were expecting,” Eric Peterson said.

New products like hard seltzer are selling well at the Lake City Food Center, which employs approximately 20 people.

“We have great customers, and I love the people around here,” Suzy Peterson said. “I think there’s a good future for a small-town grocery store, if younger generations continue to support us.”

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