Not all rural groceries dying

MINNEOTA - The small town grocery store is becoming a rarer and rarer site as big box stores and jobs move to larger communities. Between 2000 and 2013, Greater Minnesota lost 14 percent of its grocery stores, according to the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

But in Minneota, Brad's Market has a strong and loyal customer base that keeps the store going.

"It was up for sale and it was something this small town needed to keep going," owner Brad Minnehan said. The 31-year-old Minneota native, 2003 Minneota High School graduate and someone who said he has "always kind of been a small town boy" bought the grocery store in 2011.

"I used to work here in high school," Minnehan said. "I thought it would be a fun adventure, something different."

The Center for Rural Policy and Development cites declining rural populations and the fact that the people that do live in these small towns are commuting to larger population centers for work and therefore buying their groceries there. The northwest part of the state felt the biggest loss with a 25 percent decline in stores, according to their study. Southwest Minnesota lost 9 percent of its stores.


But unlike the statewide trend in dwindling business in small towns, Brad's Market is seeing steady business from its loyal customer base.

"I think it's been picking up, actually," Minnehan said. "A lot of people go to Marshall, but a lot of people don't like driving all the way across Marshall, which is a big thing."

"A lot of people work at Schwan's and U.S. Bank and that's all on this (north) side of town," Minnehan said.

The market also provides jobs to Minneota's economy. Minnehan employs two full-time employees and a handful of part-time workers, including local high school students.

Karen Swedzinski started working at the store 38 years ago when it was owned by the Finnegan family. She's seen her share of changes and trends in the grocery business but said it's the service and attention to detail that keeps their small town store vital.

"You see more of the trend going for the fresh stuff," Swedzinski said. "The fresh meats and the fresh fruits and vegetables."

Fresh food can be hard to find in rural areas when a small town doesn't have a grocery store. The term "food desert" usually brings to mind neighborhoods in large cities that don't have access to typical grocery stores, but the United States Department of Agriculture also considers people living in rural areas that are more than 10 miles from a supermarket to be in a food desert - a place without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food, according to the USDA.

The Center for Rural Policy and Development says shoppers in small towns that lack a grocery store typically need to drive 30 miles or more to access a grocery store. And that's an even bigger challenge for rural Minnesotans that don't drive.


"I don't know what I would do if we didn't have this store," Audrey Timm said. "I was born and raised here and at one time we had about four stores in town, so we're down to one."

Timm said she has been shopping at the local store for more than 50 years, and because she doesn't drive, it is her only source for fresh and healthy food. But even if she had more choices, she said it's the service at Brad's Market that keeps her coming back.

"My needs I can get right here," Timm said. "And what I want, they will get for me. I like that service... it's really special."

Brad's Market has a meat counter where hand-cut meats are prepared in-house by a butcher. And they still give their customers extra special care, like carrying their groceries out to their cars.

"People just don't want to see a small store - a hometown grocery store - go away," Minnehan said. "They appreciate it."

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