Newton Kansan

With modern mobility and the draw of big box stores, rural groceries in Kansas and the rest of the country are fighting to stay open.

In Harvey and Marion counties, rural grocery stores are also affected by competition in larger towns from supermarket chains. Still, the store's owners report they are not struggling to stay in business. Things like a loyal customer base, management experience and the allure of freshly sliced meats appear to work in the stores' favor.

"A quarter of our business is in our meat department," Keith Banman, owner of Keith's Foods in Goessel said. "We make our own sausage. A lot of people come from Newton for our hamburger because we have a lean quality product."

A recent Kansas State Extension  study of grocery stores in smaller commmunites found  store owners and managers viewed having a custom meat counter as a trait that significantly differentiated them from big box supermarkets where meats are generally pre-packaged. Stores in the smaller communities, in particular, featured their meat counter prominently.

Rick Turner and his wife, Vickie, own Peabody Market in Peabody. He said the national distribution for meat in stores is 16 percent. In his store, it is 28 percent.

"We draw people in with our meat," Turner said, while sitting in the food storage area behind the meat counter at the back of the store. "We draw customers from outside the community."

Banman and Turner, both of whom have been operating groceries for  more than 30 years, said one of their biggest challenges is people within their communities leaving town to buy groceries.

"We're small compared to Wal-Mart and Dillons," Banman said. "We have to find a own niche for our community. We're only 15 minutes from newton, 40 minutes from Wichita."

But not everybody wants to drive out of town for groceries. Banman mentioned a customer, a man in his 80s, who's grateful that he does not have to fight traffic and can buy groceries in his own town.

The rural groceries prevent communities from becoming a "food dessert."

The USDA defines a rural "food desert" as a census tract where 20 percent of the population is below the poverty level and 33 percent live more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store. That amounts to 2.3 million rural citizens who live in a food desert.

Both stores deliver groceries to people who are shut-in at home.

Banman said some of the items in his store are priced higher than in Wal-Mart and Dillons, but some are priced lower. Turner said his grocery does not have the variety of those big box stores and they charge more for paper products, but for "flat out groceries," he does not buy the argument that the big stores are priced lower.

"I can compete with them," he said. "We're not any higher. I've done comparison shopping."

Goessel has a population of around 500, but school enrollment is up. A school bond vote passed by 90 percent last fall. Banman was on the committee that helped promote the bond issue. That kind of community involvement that helps business, he said.

"Our biggest supporters are the nursing home and the school," Banman said. "If we didn't have a school, we wouldn't be here."

Local teenagers hang out at the store after school, drinking soda, eating pizza and candy, while sitting at tables near the front windows. Then there are the older men who patronize the store every morning, the "coffee and rolls crowd," Banman said.

Banman said he thinks Goessel would be hurt without a grocery store.

Turner said, "If we closed, this town woud be in a world of hurt."

Peabody Market employs 10 or 11 people and every dollar earned in town turns over seven times, he said. The store provides the largest sales tax base in town and has a $200,000 payroll.

"Take that out of town and see what happens," he said.