Manson pioneers nonprofit grocery model
Store opening brings Calhoun County out of food desert
MANSON — A mirage on the horizon materialized Thursday as Manson reopened its only grocery store, bringing life back to Calhoun County as it emerged from the grips of a growing food desert in rural Iowa.
Nearly a year after the small Heartland Market chain closed locations in Manson and Rockwell City, Manson Hometown Grocery bounced back with a non-profit model that will try its luck in the town of under 2,000.
“(A year ago) I didn’t know what ‘food desert’ meant,” said Dave Anderson, mayor of Manson.
But as he watched the volume of traffic and cartfuls of food file in and out of the small store’s humble front doors, he realized just how starved for local grocery options Manson had become.
“I believe it now,” he said after washing the dusty windows. “The people in this area got a chance to miss their grocery store. Now they’re really happy that it’s back.”
Though Manson didn’t quite reach its initial $200,000 fundraising goal, the more than $180,000 it did raise was sufficient to bring the vision to life: a non-profit model built by the community for the community.
“Knowing that the community got together to do this, we want to make sure we’re behind the community, making this work and doing what we have to do to keep the doors open,” said co-manager Jessica Teague. “We’re all about community here.”
With former experience at nearly every other relevant retail chain in the area — Walmart, Target, Casey’s General Store and Dollar General — she believed the new team of nine employees and the grocery store’s volunteer board of directors had the knowledge they needed to make the effort a success, even up against formidable chains like Dollar General that Nick Graham, the owner of Manson’s last store, blamed for much of its demise.
“We have that knowledge (of) the Dollar General, so we’re going to bring it here and make it work better,” Teague said.
With a bright new interior and more improvements planned, Manson Hometown Grocery boasts higher quality, fresh produce and meats alongside a variety of other products that make the location an efficient “one stop shop” for anyone in town. Eventually, the store plans to add a deli, fresh meat counter and prepared convenience items like salads.
New paint, LED lights and rearranged aisles give the store a deliberately brighter, more welcoming energy after nearly a year of gathering dust. Hiring friendly employees that know Manson shoppers was another strategic move to the end of producing an atmosphere of familiarity quintessential for hometown businesses.
With time, management said it will learn more about the variety customers want and how they can bring a better value to their shopping trip, preventing the need to drive 30 minutes to full-service stores in Fort Dodge. The goal of being sufficient for most basic needs is particularly important for Manson’s sizeable elderly population with limited mobility.
Anderson said that while Manson is a bedroom community to Fort Dodge, the store opening was critical to the ability to grow or even maintain its small population, calling the basic retail infrastructure a “stability block.”
The non-profit model, the first of its kind in at least Calhoun and Webster counties, was custom developed by Drake University Law School students in Des Moines. Though an obvious objective to viability is making enough sales to continue, Anderson said that the more profit the store makes, the lower their prices will be.
“Our goal is to continue to lower prices and reinvest into the community,” he said.
The experiment in non-profit, a contrast to the nearby town of Gowrie that successfully revived their dying grocery store through a for-profit model with investment shares, also makes the store eligible for a variety of grants. The trick of getting the business off the ground, for now, seems to be about getting the right cash flow after initial inventory stocking, which cost the store about $80,000, and twice a week shipments that cost about $20,000 each.
It wasn’t just a select few that made the effort a reality, though.
“It wasn’t me or the committee that did this,” Anderson said. “This was the town of Manson that did this. People stood up with handfuls of money, put in the elbow grease and are now stepping up with their checkbooks and buying groceries.”
After the town announced its fundraising goal early this year, the newly-elected mayor said residents would hand him $5 bills all over town to pitch in what they could. When it was time to clean up the vacant building, many volunteered their time to do the heavy lifting, even after COVID-19 hit.
“It’s not about how much (money), it’s about the people that stand up behind it and the people that support it,” he said.
And so far, Anderson said, they’re happy with the deal they’re getting.
“It hurt a little bit,” when Heartland Market closed, Teague said. “Now, we’re back.”