The First Year: Stapleton Cooperative Market

Stapleton Grocery was started by volunteers who wanted to bring a grocery store to their small town.
Stapleton Grocery

After having to drive a minimum of 20 miles for a loaf of bread or a jug of milk, the residents of Stapleton, Neb. and Logan County have their own grocery store. 

The Stapleton Cooperative Market and Deli opened in March of 2017 and celebrated its first anniversary last month. 

When Stapleton, population 307, lost its grocery store in November of 2015, the residents of town wondered if they would ever have a grocery store. They decided to take things into their own hands and create a cooperative and own their own store. 

Heather Harwager and a whole bunch of Logan County residents gathered together. They did surveys to see if a grocery store was needed, and if it would be supported if it was opened. Stapleton and Logan County are some of the most sparsely populated parts of the U.S., with only 763 people in the county; McPherson County, to the west of Logan County, is ranked as the sixth least populated county in the U.S., with 475 residents. Logan Countians had a couple grocery store choices, none less than 20 miles away. The closest stores are in North Platte, 30 miles south; Thedford, 36 miles north, and Arnold (population 587), 20 miles east. To the west 25 miles lies Tryon, which has no grocery store.   

After it was determined that a store was feasible, Logan Countians swung into action. They wrote by-laws and articles of incorporation and began the membership drive. The original goal was to raise $300,000 by selling stocks, $500 at a time, and to have the full amount raised within a month.  

It didn’t go well. Halfway through the first thirty days, they had only raised $50,000. “We kept adding another ten days, and then another ten, and then ten more,” recalled Harwager. They had decided to use the existing grocery store building, with some remodeling. An anonymous person bought the building, donating its use till the cooperative was stable enough to purchase it. That allowed them to decrease the original goal. They did more refiguring: lowering the inventory they were going to carry and decreasing other amounts till the goal changed to $200,000. 

Then the shares started selling. The community and surrounding area was waiting for the decrease, Harwager said. The money “flooded in.” One-hundred fifty-seven shareholders raised $210,000. Most of those shares came from locals, but others were purchased by people from across the state with ties to Stapleton. Because of cooperative rules, shares could not be sold to people outside of Nebraska, so those out-of-staters who wanted to buy bought them in the names of family members who lived in-state.  

But the work wasn’t over. From the original group of volunteers, ten citizens became directors on the board, while the others stayed on as the steering committee. Harwager is president of the board, which met every two weeks for sixteen months.  

The building was left unlocked during the day, until 8 or 9 p.m. each evening, and on weekends, so that volunteers could come in and work on their own time. Harwager became notorious for her lists: she left “to-do lists” for each sub-committee. “I’d assign them a list of jobs to do. If they did it, they were to mark it off so everybody knew the job had been done. They were pretty sick of my to-do lists.”  

But the lists got done: the building cleaned, tin put up around the grocery cart area, painting done, and more. People put in countless hours, Harwager said. “It was completely a community effort by lots of volunteer help, hours and hours of it.” The local share drives and the volunteer labor served a purpose, she said. “Psychologically, if you have someone who buys an investment, they’re interested in it and they’ll shop there.”  

The board also learned that they would have to buy $14,000 worth of merchandise a week for a delivery truck to stop in Stapleton, so they contracted with Ewoldt’s Grocery in Thedford, to be a “B” store. Groceries will be delivered to Ewoldt’s, and from there, they will be brought to Stapleton.  

The building required few revamps, except for new coolers and freezers. The ones that were there were not energy efficient, costing $2,200 a month in electricity. So with the help of a grant, the committee bought new ones for $84,000. “I didn’t think I’d ever say a cooler door or freezer door would look so beautiful, but new ones are gorgeous,” Harwager said.  

It wasn’t easy; all the work was done by volunteers, including board members, who had “real” jobs during the day and worked on evenings and weekends. People got discouraged, Harwager said. “We’d end up getting cold feet. It was a struggle for us, but I kept saying, ‘where’s your leap of faith?’”  

Not everyone in the community was in favor of it, and Harwager didn’t mind the opposition. “There are still some who say it’s not going to work. Those are also the people who at some point in time, we thanked for saying that, because that’s what got us through those weeks when we didn’t think we could do it.”  

The Stapleton Cooperative Market and Deli, which is 4,800 square feet, carries the Best Choice brands, with specialties including Jet Smooth Smoothies, Allegro coffee, and popcorn from the Pop Corner in North Platte. They carry a variety of gluten-free products and quite a few Nebraska-based products.  

It has a full-time manager and seven part-time employees. It also has a deli, serving sandwiches for lunch. The committee was very careful to not infringe on existing businesses in town, like the café, which serves breakfast and supper. “We don’t want to take away business from anybody else in town,” Harwager said.  

After school is out, the kids stream downtown to buy smoothies and snacks at the Cooperative. Cindy Frey, owner of Frey’s Propane and Hardware store, loves seeing them. “It’s so great to see kids walk downtown again.”  

There have been challenges in the store’s first year of operation. The new coolers have frozen up, have needed filling with Freon several times, and the compressor doesn’t always work, which caused a spike in electrical bills. A prep table crashed and had to be replaced. “I think we budgeted $400 a month for repairs and they’re running $1,800 a month,” Harwager said. 

The honeymoon period for the store is also over, she said. During the summer (and the week of the eclipse, which was a total eclipse over Logan County) sales were good. The winter slowed down. The board figures they need an additional $83 per day spent in the store, to make the budget. “The new has worn off,” she said. The store must have $38,000 in sales a month to be financially successful.  

The group in Stapleton has had help. Jim Crandall, cooperative business specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Agricultural Economics Dept., helps people throughout the state in putting together cooperatively owned business models. In the last five years, he’s seen a lot of grocery stores and other main street businesses develop cooperatives, and he met with the Stapleton group several times. The communities’ investments are not wholly financial, but also emotional. He enjoys working with communities like Stapleton. “You get a dozen people together, and you have twelve different skill sets and life experiences to pull from. You may have somebody good at working with people, or good at marketing, or good at the construction or physical work. Use the skills of a variety of people in those situations towards one goal, and that’s part of what makes those approaches successful.”  

They have created a tagline: “Your community, your store.” Retraining the brain to shop locally is the goal. From studies, she determined that a trip to North Platte for groceries costs $40, figuring in a 60-mile round trip at $.54 a mile, an hour of driving and two hours of shopping at nine dollars an hour (minimum wage). Count in impulse buying, and the cost goes up. Figuring a twenty minute drive, depending on where a person lives, a person would have to save forty dollars to make the trip to North Platte financially feasible. It may be more exciting to shop in North Platte, but it’s not good for the store or the town. “Sure, it’s fun to go out of town and shop, and do this and that, but you have to keep your town,” she said.  

Harwager, who works full time in an insurance business in Arnold, said the experience has “been a ride.” But it was a ride together. “The most important thing was there was never an “I” in team. It was a community effort, and still is.”  

The “can-do” attitude that got the store built in the first place is still evident. “We’ve been tried about every angle possible and we’re still here,” Harwager said. “That’s a good sign.” 

The Stapleton School superintendent has been very helpful, encouraging the school cook to order fruit through the store and is working to get concession stand supplies from the grocery store. “We’re now seeing that the community is starting to support its businesses. 

“That’s how these little towns survive. We support each other.”