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In a small Missouri town, a grocery is a big deal

Friday, January 3, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST

PILOT GROVE — Loretta Kempf wasn't messing around the day her town got its grocery store back.

She had her mind set on being the first customer and rejected a friend's offer of a ride there.

"You'll be late," she told the woman.

Kempf, 91, walked. She got there first and bought an angel food cake mix, The Kansas City Star reports.

She and others like her are a good part of why this town built a grocery store. Literally, the town. A bunch of farmers, the mayor, a doctor, an electrician, business owners, the high school FFA, regular folks and some retirees — 23 in all — pooled money and came up with $320,000 for the new store. It had its grand opening Dec. 7.

The old store closed about four years ago, and the nearest place for groceries had been in Boonville, 12 miles away. Not all that far, but Pilot Grove has a lot of senior citizens among its 800 residents.

And as Kempf put it, "When it snows and school's out, the (transportation service) bus doesn't run."

In a metal building only 60 feet by 72, the new store won't be confused with a Hy-Vee or Price Chopper. It doesn't have a full deli, but you can get a ham sandwich; no fancy java bar, but there is a coffee pot and a place to visit.

Communities lose a lot when they lose the grocery store — convenience, identity, pride. The idea to pass a hat to build a new one says a lot about this little town in Cooper County, and probably something about rural grit.

"When you want or need something bad enough, sometimes you have to do it yourself," said Joe Stoecklein, one of the farmers who pitched in.

Going way back, Elwood Gerke ran a grocery store in Pilot Grove.

But he got old and sick and finally had to sell the place. For whatever reason, the people who took over couldn't make a go of it and closed up about four years ago.

No one came forward to try again.

Connie Mefford, a program development specialist for MU Extension, said distributors typically don't like to service small towns because of the time and money necessary for a small order.

"That's why a lot of towns have lost their stores," Mefford said.

But Pilot Grove folks wouldn't give up. They knew that without a grocery store, young people leave, nobody moves in and businesses close.

"Nobody wants to live in a town without a grocery store, simple as that," said Kathy Meisenheimer, who works at the local bank.

And while older residents don't mind driving around town, they might not want to get out on blacktops to go to other towns to shop.

"Some of them shouldn't be driving at all," Art Schuster Jr., another of the farmers who chipped in, said with a smile.

Pilot Grove does have a Casey's convenience store, but the town wanted a full-line grocery store. In March 2010, townspeople invited Mefford to attend a community meeting on strategy to get one.

"I told them that night that this was going to be a challenge," Mefford said. "But there was also about 120 people there. That told me this town really wants this, and that's what helped me to stay in with them."

They pushed forward, eventually talking to a couple who operate stores in Knob Noster and Waverly. Cody and Paula Tyler said they would be interested, but not in the old Gerke building because of its age and disrepair.

So first off, Pilot Grove needed money for a new building.

"At first, we thought we'd get 300 people to give a thousand dollars each," Stoecklein said.

But that wouldn't work for the limited liability company the financial structure would take. They needed 25 investors, meaning some would give a whole lot more than $1,000.

The fundraising fell to nurse practitioner Laurie Beach.

"I got the money in seven days, and four of those the electricity was out in my office," Beach said.

The new building went up on a lot adjacent to her office. She'd bought the land as a buffer.

"I didn't want cars on blocks or dogs on chains over there," she said.

Rita Schuster gave a tour of Pilot Grove's new grocery store a recent day, proudly, like she was showing off her new house.

Aisle by aisle, frozen section, fresh meat and the produce table. It's not the biggest store, but you can get everything you need for a big holiday dinner, she said.

"I should know because I just had 30 for Thanksgiving," she said.

And if somebody wants an item not in stock, "we'll take requests if it's something they would buy regularly," she said.

Schuster works there part time. She and her husband, John, who is Art's son, farm about 1,200 acres. They also contributed to the building fund. It works this way: The Tylers pay rent on the building, an amount determined by sales. At the end of the year, the investors get a dividend based on profit.

"If there is a dividend," Art Schuster said.

New store operator Cody Tyler, a bread man and meat cutter by training, thinks it will work out.

"I was pretty impressed with how the town came together on this thing," he said. "They really wanted a store, and we're happy to be part of it."

Meisenheimer, from the bank, showed up for lunch that day. She said the store and the effort to get it shows what a close-knit community Pilot Grove is.

"But we already knew that."


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