BALATON?- About 60 residents came to the Balaton Community Center on Wednesday night to listen to representatives of the Menno, S.D. food co-op describe how they took over their town's grocery store.
"I'm a member of the local development board and chairman of the Menno Food Market Corporation," said Dave Bender, vice president of the Menno State Bank. "I'm here to give you guys our story. We went through the same thing, except our store hadn't closed."
Jerry Lupkes, president of the Balaton Economic Development Corporation, described the meeting as informational.
"We're just trying to determine what the interest in the local community is in establishing a co-op," Lupkes said.
The Balaton EDC has been discussing alternative scenarios since the only grocery store in town closed recently. They invited Bender and Shawn Black, the manager of the grocery store in Menno, in part because the demographics of the two communities are similar.
Menno has a population of about 670 and is 13 miles from the nearest grocery store in Yankton, S.D. Balaton has a population of about 640 and is 12 miles from the nearest grocery store in Tracy. Distances to the nearest medium-sized city are also similar.
The biggest demographic difference, according to Bender, is the median age of the population of Balaton is about 30 years younger than Menno.
Bender described for the audience how the owners of the Menno store approached the development corporation in 2006 with their intention of retiring and asked them to help find a buyer. When the efforts proved fruitless over two years, the discussion turned to buying out the owners and forming a community corporation to run the store. The development group formed a corporation and sold three tiers of shares at $100, $500, and $1,000, eventually attracting 144 investors. They secured a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to replace the store's coolers and freezers, bought the existing inventory for about $80,000 and advertised for a manager.
Black is the second manager of the Menno store, and was hired away from the Hy-Vee in Yankton.
"I'm very passionate about what I do at the store," Black said. "For me, it comes down to providing what people of the community deserve."
The Menno store has a five-member board of directors who serve three-year terms, according to Bender. The board gives the manager wide discretion on decisions and do not micro-manage. They took over the store in 2008, and it turned started turning a profit in the last two years.
Black invited members of the audience to say what they wanted in a store. Five things stood out: customers want to find what they are looking for in the same place every time, fresh meat, friendly service, fresh produce and a willingness to fill requests by customers for new products.
"Notice nobody mentioned price?" Bender said.
Questions from the audience concerned what products the Menno store carried, how it was decided what to carry, what level of support from the community the store had, and why they went outside the community for a manager.
Bender and Black told the audience that while a successful effort would require hard work over a long time, the Balaton building was better than the Menno store's aging facility and the demographics even more favorable for a successful store.
"You've got it in place and you've got growth on the horizon in your community," Black said. "If we had the same kind of prospects in Menno you have here, I'd be breaking ground for a new store now."
Lupkes in closing asked the residents if they missed the store.
"People here are spending $8 in gas to save $6 in Marshall," Lupkes said.