Rockwell City’s last grocery store closing

Most of Calhoun County now left without one

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious A cashier checks out a customer at Heartland Market in Rockwell City, the town’s last remaining grocery store. The store, formerly known as South Side Grocery, announced its plan to close Wednesday.

ROCKWELL CITY — Rockwell City is the next victim in a growing list of small rural towns that have lost or are about to lose their only grocery store.

The town of about 2,000 learned earlier this week that Heartland Market, formerly known as South Side Grocery, will soon close, following the small chain’s closures in Manson, Rolfe, Rockwell and soon, Manning.

The closing will leave most of Calhoun County without a grocery store.

A Facebook post Wednesday notified shoppers that the store would close in the next “few weeks,” offering them 30% off groceries as it started the liquidation process. Owner Nick Graham would not specify a last day for the store.

Graham said employees were probably notified last week, but could not recall the exact date they were given notice. Rockwell City Mayor Phil Heinlen said that the city received notice from an employee Tuesday, as soon as at least one employee apparently said they were told, setting the city in motion to contact chain stores to explore an alternative for the town.

Graham’s Heartland Market store in Manning will close on Christmas Eve, according to that store’s Facebook page.

His chain’s Manson grocery store closed on Nov. 10, earlier than the date it initially announced as its last day, as it faced the imminent shut-off of its electricity due to non-payment, according to the store’s manager.

Employees in Manson were notified the store was closing with a note in their paychecks, a manner of notice that sparked anger and disgust among employees.

Rockwell City’s store employs about 10 people.

Like many other towns preceding Rockwell City, the only remaining store to sell just a small selection of groceries will be Dollar General.

“It’s a very tough time to be an independent grocer, especially in small, rural America,” Graham told The Messenger Thursday. “I can’t keep going backwards on this.”

Graham became the youngest grocery store owner in the country in 2006, when he purchased his first grocery store at age 17. The owner of Heartland Markets purchased the store in Rockwell in 2017, along with a string of others in nearby towns. He said the store was there for decades before that.

As she picked up a dozen loaves of bread Thursday afternoon, Marcella Hammen always recalled having at least one grocery store in town. As she moved to town about 35 years ago, she said there were two.

Heinlen said that store, Clark’s Supermarket, closed about 15 years ago, according to his memory. It was housed in the spot where Swanson Hardware is now located.

In fact, Hammen only realized the store was closing as she pulled the bread off the shelf — she missed the signs on the way in. Recently, she recalled posted signs to the contrary, telling shoppers throughout the building that the store was, in fact, not closing.

Graham told The Messenger that he believed employees saw the figurative writing on the wall over the last few weeks, even as they taped up literal signs telling customers that the store wasn’t closing.

The signs giving false hope to shoppers and employees alike turned out to be untrue, after all.

After this store closes, his small chain’s only remaining stores will be in Ackley, Jewell and Gowrie.

The store owner, considered a whiz in the business a decade ago given his age, said that declining rural populations, e-commerce and general merchandise stores have contributed to his chain’s decline, citing no significant profit in 2017, a slight loss in 2018 and a larger loss at the Rockwell City store in 2019.

“This year has been really difficult,” he said, telling The Messenger he hasn’t received any paycheck or compensation for nearly three years.

Officials in Rockwell City, like others, are not happy about the change.

“Any time a town that size loses a grocery store, it has a huge effect,” said Heinlen.

He said upcoming meetings may soon determine whether there’s enough viable interest from other grocery store chains to locate in town, providing a substantial option closer than Fort Dodge — a 35-minute drive.

“Can we make that happen? We’re going to try like hell,” he said. “We’ve made the phone calls, believe me. We’re not going to lay down and take this.”

Heinlen said the town, with a substantial elderly population with less mobility, will reap substantial consequences without a grocery store.

The mayor said no local citizen has expressed interest in running the store, and he doesn’t foresee the city showing an interest in undertaking a local co-op that some towns have attempted.

“The last thing we need to do is get into something like that and have it fail,” he said.

Such an effort could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In addition to a substantial personnel and inventory investment, he said the building, owned by Graham, has had a few issues. The building closed earlier this week due to a major water leak, and has had issues with its heating system and front doors.

“Small towns are losing some things,” Heinlen said, a reality that many in rural Iowa are being forced to accept as the new normal.


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