For this North Dakota grocery, the pandemic is personal

Rural grocery stores are struggling, undercut by box stores and dwindling population. But business has surged during the crisis, as people seek the safety of smaller crowds and friendly faces.

When Dan Reineke was in quarantine waiting for the result of his Covid-19 test, he had his groceries delivered to his home. His local grocery store — Michigan Hometown Foods — doesn’t have an online ordering system, though, so he wrote down a list of what he wanted, snapped a photo with his phone, and sent it as a text message to the store’s manager, Arliss Spillane.

“I was as explicit as I could be,” Reineke says about his list. “I generally tend to buy things without paying attention, so I tried to pay attention for Arliss.”

Reineke, an emergency medical technician who lives in Michigan, North Dakota, quarantined after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Reineke tested negative, but he felt fortunate that Spillane and her crew were able to bring him groceries. Spillane started a tab for Reineke, because he only pays in cash, and he settled up once he was able to return to the store in person.

Try that at Whole Foods.

Grocery delivery is nothing new, and it certainly has become much more common since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. But for a store like Michigan Hometown Foods, which is  the lone grocery in a town of 275 people, the process looks a lot different than it does in a larger city. Instead of scrolling through photos and detailed descriptions and adding items to an online cart, Hometown Foods shoppers order by text or Facebook — or simply pick up the phone and call Spillane. She keeps the store’s Facebook page current with new arrivals, deals, and lots of photos.

Dan Reineke, an EMT who had his groceries delivered while he was self-quarantined for 14 days, sanitizes his hands with Michigan Hometown Foods manager Arliss Spillane.

New methods of ordering are just one way rural grocers are adapting to the pandemic. As with their big-city counterparts, there’s also the need to arrange curbside pickup, manage increased home delivery, and deal with the reality of face masks and a recent spike in meat prices after processing plants were temporarily closed by Covid-19 outbreaks.

But for Spillane, there’s the additional stress of trying to protect her employees and customers, who also are her friends and neighbors. She oversees six employees, two of whom are part-time. So far, all have avoided contracting the virus. When her meat cutter wasn’t feeling well, she sent him to get tested (he was negative).

“I’m just mentally and physically drained,” she says.

Spillane takes the challenge of safeguarding health personally. She owned Michigan Hometown Foods from 2009 until 2017, when she got sick with an unknown illness that caused her to have convulsions. Unable to work as doctors tried for months to diagnose the problem, Spillane was forced to sell the store. The next owner wasn’t able to keep it open, so in 2018 the county bought it to ensure the town kept its grocery store. By then Michigan’s hometown doctor, Boyd “Doc” Hagen, had figured out that Spillane’s convulsions were caused by an infection and treated her with an antibiotic, so she came back to manage the store.

Hometown Foods is in a low-slung white building that looks like it could be a warehouse. The Michigan Water Tower rises behind it, and outside its doors, propped open so customers need not touch them, sits a vending machine that dispenses temporary tattoos. The store’s five aisles, wide enough to fit two grocery carts, are spread over 4,500 square feet. There’s a robust meat section that Spillane is especially proud of. Along with the standard steaks, pork chops, and ground chuck, the section offers bratwursts, Swedish meatballs, and seasoned roasts prepared by Spillane and her team.

In the produce section, above ripe pineapples and fat, green watermelons, bananas hang from a tall, brown, leaf-topped column meant to resemble a palm tree. There’s an extensive selection of prepared foods, including green chicken curry and beef fried rice from a local Thai woman who cooks for the store.

Although there have so far only been two confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the county, Spillane takes the pandemic seriously. On a table just inside the front doors there is hand sanitizer, cloth masks made by a local volunteer, and a sign asking people to keep their masks, wash and reuse them. When shoppers leave the store, their carts are quickly sanitized.

“She started wearing masks right away when in some of the small towns the businesses maybe lagged a few days or a week behind on things,” Reineke says. “She took things serious and all her other employees just followed suit.”

When one of Spillane’s employees was ordered by the health department to quarantine after having contact with a coronavirus patient, Spillane shifted for a week to curbside-only service. “If she had been positive, we would have stayed at curbside only,” Spillane says.

Elaine Larson, a 67-year-old retiree who was born and raised in Michigan, found the curbside-pickup experience easy and efficient.

“We’d call and give them our order and then give them a call when we’re there, and they’d come out and tell us the amount,” Larson says. “There was absolutely no contact whatsoever. I think her business went down at the time a little bit because of that, but they were as accommodating as can be.”

It wasn’t as easy for Spillane. She took pictures of every aisle and posted them to Facebook so customers could see what was there. Still, people would call and ask what items the store had in stock and how much things cost. She sometimes ended up having to say, “Hon, I don’t mean this in a rude way, but I just don’t have time to price check everything.”

Michigan Hometown Foods employees Christopher Botner and Elizabeth Thrasher unload groceries from the delivery truck.

Spillane has also been strict with her staff. When one employee visited two nearby towns, both of which had cases of the virus, Spillane wouldn’t let her return to work for two weeks. And when some younger staff members planned a non-essential trip to Grand Forks, a city of some 57,000 an hour east, she told them that if they went they should plan to take 12 days off afterward. They decided not to go.

“It is a responsibility of the business owners to keep everybody safe,” Spillane says. “I would feel horrible if we became the place where everybody caught something. Because we probably have more people coming through than any other business in our town.”

For Larson, at least, all the care Spillane takes matters. “I feel so much safer just going up to Arliss’s,” she says.

Michigan Hometown Foods is one of 98 rural grocery stores in North Dakota. It serves customers not just from in town but from surrounding communities as well. The town of Lakota is 11 miles away and some of its residents now shop at Hometown Foods since its grocery store closed last fall.

Rural grocery stores across the country have been struggling for years. They face competition from Walmart and other box stores, as well as from an influx of dollar stores, like Dollar General, that undercut grocers on price. The loss of these stores is also fueled by the outmigration of people from rural areas to urban areas, where job opportunities are more plentiful. Since 2010, 1,300 rural counties have lost more than 900,000 people, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As grocery stores vanish from rural America, there has been an effort to document the economic, cultural and health effects of that loss. Dollar stores typically don’t sell much fresh produce, for instance, and when that is the only convenient option, residents have a harder time finding the ingredients for a healthy diet. And towns that lose their grocery stores lose “a significant economic driver,” says David Proctor, director of the Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University. “Our research shows that they hire 15-17 people at these small stores. They are not only hiring local people but also employing carpenters, plumbers, electricians, general contractors.” He also says that having a grocery store in a town can raise property values.

Organizations like Proctor’s work to reverse this trend, offering financial and logistical support to grocers, gathering and sharing data, and hosting conferences and meetings. In North Dakota, the Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives runs its own Rural Grocery Initiative, which does similar work.

So far, the coronavirus has actually boosted business for many rural stores. A survey done last month by the North Dakota Rural Grocery Initiative found that nearly all 49 stores surveyed have seen sales rise since the beginning of the pandemic, some by as much as 100 percent.

“It told us two things,” says Lori Capouch, director of the Grocery Initiative. “First, people do need access to food locally during emergencies, and second, the customer base is still there. There are enough people in those areas to support rural groceries, but we’re losing sales to other places.”

The loss of grocery stores in small, rural towns like Michigan, North Dakota, has produced significant health, economic and cultural effects. Some hope that the rise in business, caused by the pandemic, will persist once the crisis is over.

Michigan Hometown Foods has experienced this coronavirus  boost. “We went from doing average sales of about $1,800 a day to $2,700 a day,” says Spillane.

During normal times, it made sense for some residents of Michigan and the surrounding area to shop at the Walmarts, Sam’s Clubs and other options in Grand Forks and Devil’s Lake, a city of roughly 7,200 that’s just a 40-minute drive away — especially if work or other business took them there anyway. Now, though, people aren’t commuting for work or doctors’ appointments, and they feel safer in their small town than in a bigger city.

In fact, according to Reineke, people from the larger cities “were coming into Michigan to stay away from the crowds.” In something of a role reversal, smaller stores often had items — like flour, eggs, and toilet paper — that the bigger stores did not.

There is hope that at least some of these customers will continue shopping at Michigan’s store once the pandemic subsides.

“I think some of it depends on how long we have to deal with the pandemic, because it takes a while to change habits,” Capouch says.

Spillane realizes that the bump might not last. “My fear is that when everything’s opened back up we may take a hit,” she says.

Meanwhile, although sales have gone up, Spillane is worried about the spike in meat prices. When meat-processing plants shut down temporarily in April and May, meat prices rose around the country. Although the plants have reopened, Spillane says she is still seeing much higher prices. Before, her meat department accounted for most of the store’s sales. Now she is pricing meat at cost, once labor is factored in, and hoping that customers buy enough of other items to offset the loss.

Money worries have become more commonplace during the pandemic. Many Michigan area residents work in the agricultural sector — as farmers, at the local John Deere dealership, which is the largest in the state, or at SSR Pump Welding, which services agriculture operations — and so they still have jobs. But plenty of others are out of work, and people have donated money to Hometown Foods that Spillane can use for customers who need it. So far, around $800 has been donated, and Spillane says she’s gone through roughly a third of it.

“I think people are too proud,” she says. “I have had a few people come in and ask for help.”

In addition, Spillane bought gift certificates from other local businesses, such as a gas station and a bar, and raffled them off to customers in order to support those businesses.

These are the kinds of things that characterize the more intimate relationship that small, rural grocery stores often have with their communities — the ability to run a tab, or ask for financial help when you need it. In many cases, customers and employees are friends who’ve known one another, in various capacities, for years.

“When you buy something from Arliss,” says Larson, “you know what you get.”

Whether all the things Spillane and other rural grocers like her are doing now will help them survive in the post-pandemic world is impossible to know, but in this uncertain moment customers seem to realize how lucky they are.

“It makes me appreciate the fact that it’s still there and still going strong,” says Reineke. “I hope everyone in the area supports it.”

Lead image: Arliss Spillane, who manages Michigan Hometown Foods, says it’s the responsibility of business owners to do whatever is necessary to keep customers safe during the pandemic. For her, those customers are also her friends and neighbors.

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