The smell of coffee was already wafting through the True Value Hardware Store by the time the sun started to rise last Wednesday morning in the southern Minnesota town of Butterfield. Christmas music played softly in the background. Customers stomped the snow off their shoes as they greeted Rosie Simenson, who knew nearly every one of them by name.
While some showed up to search for paint swatches or two-by-fours, others were there for an entirely different purpose: Groceries.
Butterfield lost its only grocery store — Del’s Foods — about a decade ago. And until this past May, residents have had to rely on the local Casey’s convenience store for the essentials. But now, rather than having to drive to a neighboring town like St. James or Windom, Butterfield residents can swing by the local hardware store to pick up a gallon of milk or a box of cake mix. The hardware store is beginning to fill the gaping hole Del’s closure left behind.
“They shut it down, and they tore the building down,” said Barb Mathistad Warner, who, with her husband, Mark, owns the hardware store. “We’ve been without one since then. ... There was nothing here in town. You’d have to go to the neighboring towns for groceries.”
When the Warners took over the Butterfield True Value last December, they asked friends and neighbors what they would like to see in the store, and the answer was nearly unanimous: Groceries.
It’s a small grocery section, but has all the basics. The Warners installed a few coolers for lunch meat and milk. There are separate small aisles laden with boxed and canned goods, cake mixes, bottles of iced tea and condiments. Sandwich bread is stacked neatly along one shelf, and small baskets of potatoes sit on another.
“We get at least our staples — you know, the necessities — without having to run out of town,” Mathistad Warner said. “So, that’s what got us going. And now we’ve been adding a little bit along the way. Whenever somebody comes in and says, ‘Hey, do you have this?’ It’s like ‘No, but we’ll get it.’”
Slowly but surely, word about the hardware store that sells groceries has been spreading in the area. Now, people run over whenever they need something quick to complete their supper, Mathistad Warner said.
“We had an older lady that lived in Odin, south of us, come in here and she told me, ‘I don’t like driving into St. James anymore,’ which I can understand,” Mathistad Warner said.
St. James is about a 20-minute drive northwest of Odin. Sometimes, the woman said, she would switch things up and drive to Mountain Lake — about 20 minutes in the other direction — to get her groceries there. Now, she told Warner, she’ll get her groceries in Butterfield.
Mathistad Warner said she’s been hearing that from customers a lot. “I’ve had different ones that have come in and it’s like ‘Oh, I can get groceries!’ They were getting stunned by it.”
Struggling to keep the lights on
Small-town grocery stores often struggle to keep their lights on in rural Minnesota, facing the dual pressures of shrinking local populations and competition from larger chains.
According to a report from the Wilder Foundation, a Twin Cities nonprofit, 53 of the state’s 87 counties experienced either a net loss or no change in grocery stores per capita between 2007 and 2012. The counties that saw an increase in grocery stores per capita during that period were mostly located in the Twin Cities and the southern part of the state.
That’s a scenario that Caroline McCourt, coordinator for the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership program in southern Minnesota’s Faribault, Martin and Watonwan counties, has seen play out in many communities in her region, where residents depend on a local convenience store for their basic food necessities.
But even a nearby convenience store doesn’t guarantee that residents have healthy options available to them, McCourt said. Eventually, they still have to be able to get to the grocery store — which can be a challenge for people without regular access to transportation, or who have mobility issues.
“It’s a problem in rural areas,” McCourt said. “But, you can also have the issue in an urban area, too, depending on what the personal transportation or mobility issue looks like.”
The 2016 Wilder report found that 20 Minnesota counties outside the Twin Cities metro had census tracts that the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies as food deserts — areas that are considered low-income, where the poverty rate is more than or equal to 20 percent; and low-access, where at least 500 people or 33 percent of the population live more than a mile from a large grocery store.
The Wilder study also found that more than 1.6 million of Minnesota’s 5.6 million residents reported having low access to food — which they define as being far from a supermarket, supercenter or large grocery store.
The Warners took over the hardware store last year because its previous owners were about to retire and they didn’t want to see another Butterfield business close its doors. So, in order to survive as a small-town business, Mathistad Warner said, they need to continue to find reasons for residents to spend their money in town.
“To keep everything alive, you can’t do it solely on groceries or you can’t do it solely on hardware,” she said. “So, that’s why we’ve basically combined the three different things: the lumberyard, the hardware and groceries, all in one.”
The Warners, with McCourt’s help, managed to secure funding through a SHIP grant from the Minnesota Department of Health to help purchase a cooler and make an initial purchase of groceries.
When the grocery was a gathering place
Around Butterfield, residents say the old Del’s Foods store, which was across the street from the Warners’ hardware store, was a hub where the community would gather. It offered more than just produce, and stocked little toys and trinkets that delighted neighborhood kids.
When the store closed, Mathistad Warner said, it was almost like Butterfield had lost a part of itself.
“That was a small family-run business for years and years and years,” she said. “To see it go kind of makes you sad. It’s a part of your town that you lose.”
Over the years, the Warners had seen businesses come and go from downtown Butterfield. There used to be a beautician, Barb said, who also left. Now there’s only one salon in town. There were two coffee shops, she said, but those also closed.
Kermit Leet has lived in the area for “many years,” he said, and is grateful for the Warners’ efforts. Leet taught industrial arts at Butterfield-Odin Public School for about 25 years. He retired in 1999.
“I’ve never seen this sort of thing happen before, when somebody came back into town,” Leet said.
“Otherwise, the store would have closed, too. It happens in other communities where they’ve lost their drug stores, they lost their hardware stores and whatever. But here, if you have been here on Saturday, when they had an open house, it was kind of like the olden days again.”
The Warners said they hope their hardware store can revive some of that feeling of the past, when grocery stores weren’t just a place to buy food, but a place for neighbors to gather.
“Throughout the day, there’s no place really you can grab a cup of coffee aside from Casey’s,” Mathistad Warner said. “There’s no place to sit down and have a conversation.”
So they set out a coffee pot every morning, and pull several mismatched lawn chairs into the middle of an aisle. Customers stop, sit, grab a cup of coffee, and the hardware store becomes a community gathering place — and a one-stop-shop to buy basic necessities. Eventually, the Warners would like to add a deli to their offerings.
For customers like Roger Wollschlager, who has lived in Butterfield nearly 30 years, it was something that the town desperately needed.
“I thought that was the best thing in the world we could have,” Wollschlager said. “Small stuff you couldn’t get. We could use a little grocery store. One of the biggest reasons why I come in is for a cup of coffee.”
Mary Schulte, another Butterfield resident, agrees.
“What I like about this grocery up here, when I’m baking and I want just one thing, I can come up and grab it and run home and keep on baking,” Schulte said. “They’ve got their little coffee up here and some of us if we don’t know what to do, just come up here, sit down and have a coffee and visit, then go back home again.”
It’s been less than a year since the hardware store also became a grocery — so its long-term impact on the town is still unclear. But Warner said he’s hopeful.
“Small communities are going to work together,” he said. “You’re going to make everything work.”