Reviving Rural Grocery Stores in North Dakota
By Annie Prafcke
Fargo, ND – On October 7th, Gov. Doug Burgum awarded Milnor Market and the Forman grocery store project Main Street Awards, as part of an initiative led by the Office of Governor Doug Burgum and North Dakota Department of Commerce. These awards recognize communities that demonstrate excellence in responsible planning, attracting talent for economic growth, and developing vibrant communities.
The Milnor Market in Milnor, ND won the Smart Efficient Infrastructure Award for renovations to their town’s sole grocery store. Built in 1987, Milnor Market serves the small, rural community of Milnor – population 634, located in southeastern North Dakota.
Milnor’s grocery store, according to Milnor Mayor, Terry Dusek, was in poor condition prior to this project. The shelves were often empty or poorly stocked. The freezers and coolers were outdated. Mayor Dusek says that sometimes the store lacked even the most basic essentials, such as milk and bread. In December 2019, the then owner filed for foreclosure.
Yet, Mayor Dusek and the residents of Milnor were determined to keep their grocery store open. After the foreclosure, the city of Milnor leased the building to the then owner for $100 a month so it could stay in business while the city began the process of purchasing the building, renovating it and finding a new owner.
Mayor Dusek says it was important to keep Milnor Market open because when a town’s only grocery store closes, residents leave, taking not only the grocery business with them, but business in all sectors of the community. “It’s kind of a slippery slope,” he says.
The most difficult part of the process, according to Mayor Dusek, was finding a new owner to take over the store. He said eight people declined the position, which he suspects was due to Milnor’s small population and rural location, both of which can seem risky to a potential buyer.
He says, “. . . none of them were willing to take the chance to come to town and not have work.”
Finally, Cory Zacher agreed to purchase and operate Milnor Market. He took over the building on April 15th, 2020. After a four-month renovation, which included purchasing new coolers and freezers, installing LED lighting, a natural gas furnace, and a purified water dispenser, they finally reopened.
Mayor Dusek calls Milnor Market’s transformation a “roaring success” and a “complete 360” from its previous condition. Current owner Cory Zacher says he has received lots of positive feedback from customers who no longer have to travel miles for necessary products.
He says, “They’re so excited [about] the variety of products that we have. It’s really important so that they don’t have to go out of town to get them.”
Keeping Milnor’s grocery store open was an accomplishment, but not all rural grocery stores in North Dakota have been able to keep their doors open. The grocery store in Forman, ND was closed for over a year before it finally reopened this past August, thanks to the Forman grocery store project, which also received a 2020 Main Street Excellence Award for a Rural Community.
The Forman grocery store project was developed by the Forman Community Development Corporation (FCDC), along with local volunteers and business owners. It began when Forman’s grocery store, Forman Market, went out of business in May 2019. Jesse Mastenbrook, president of the FCDC, says it was a shock for their small town, since the next closest place to buy groceries is Gwinner, ND, 10 miles away.
“. . . You take for granted having a grocery store in your hometown – you really do,” he says. “Because when you have to load the whole family up and go and take an afternoon to go shopping, it really affects your life.”
Mastenbrook says many Forman citizens drove 30 miles across state lines to Britton, SD for groceries. Others drove to nearby towns such as Lisbon or Oakes to shop at other small grocery stores or larger chains. Some bought beef and pork directly from local farmers. He says people had to do what was necessary to get by.
The situation in Milnor and Forman is not unfamiliar to many people living in rural areas across North Dakota. Research from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that in 2015, North Dakota, along with several other sparsely-populated states, had a greater number of communities that were not near a grocery store when compared to states with higher populations. Furthermore, data from Creating a Hunger-Free North Dakota demonstrates that about 28% of North Dakota’s rural grocery stores closed in towns with fewer than 2,100 people between 2013 and 2019.
When Forman Market shut its doors in May 2019, the FCDC sprang into action to reopen it. Because they didn’t own the building or the property, they had to acquire both from the creditor who held the title, which took about a year. They then searched for a grocer who was willing to buy and run the store. As it was in Milnor, this step proved difficult. Mastenbrook claims many potential buyers were not interested in buying a grocery store in a small town like Forman (population 504), especially one that had already gone out of business.
“Selling a grocery store that has failed is not an easy process,” he says. He also claims there are far fewer grocers today than there were in the past, and the ones who are still in the business get flooded with requests. “It’s kind of a dying trade,” he says.
That is why Mastenbrook was thrilled when Kevin Pankow, owner of Cando Grocery in Cando, ND, and his son, Brandon Pankow, agreed to buy the building.
After a two-month remodel, the Forman grocery store opened on August 5th, 2020 with the new name, Central Grocery.
Brandon Pankow, co-owner of Central Grocery, says the re-opening brought many updates to the store. They installed new energy-efficient coolers and updated all the checkouts. Central Grocery is now one of the few stores in the area with an electronic system for SNAP (food stamp) benefits and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly called WIC. He says this system is faster and less invasive than the previous one, allowing customers to swipe a card rather than present paper vouchers.
“Since we’re the only store in town, it makes a difference being able to offer all those things,” he says.
Brandon Pankow is new to Forman and he says working in a grocery store in a town with barely over 500 people is a unique experience. He says all Forman residents seem to know each other, which makes it a tight-knit community. “It’s my neighbors that I’m selling groceries to,” he says.
The Pankows have been working hard to get to know their customers and neighbors, and so far, they’ve been successful in accommodating their needs. Central Grocery’s weekday store hours from 7AM to 8PM are meant to accommodate the Bobcat employees in town who typically shop early morning or in the evening after 5PM. They also offer delivery services for Forman residents as well as people living in Rutland, Havana and Cogswell, an invaluable service for those with limited mobility, especially as winter approaches.
Cindy Klapperich is a resident of Oakes, ND who works as the Family and Community Wellness Agent at the Sargent County NDSU Extension in Forman. She shops at grocery stores all over Sargent county, including Central Grocery, to support local businesses. She says that Central Grocery’s changes may seem small, but they do not go unnoticed by Forman community members who are used to helping each other in times of need.
“It just seems like at every opportunity, Brandon [Pankow]– he’s there for the people. It’s wonderful,” she says.
It’s this kind of mutual collaboration that brings hope to grocery stores in rural communities. Jesse Mastenbrook says Forman residents demonstrated how much they care for their town through their active involvement in every step of this project.
“There’s a lot of volunteers that stepped up and helped out,” he says. “It didn’t matter what time of day it was. If there was help needed, you just put something up on social media, and there were like ten-to-twenty people that would show up and they would just say, ‘What do you need?’"
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