Brandon and Chris Kerksieck first saw the "For Sale" sign as they were going to church one Sunday morning. Chilhowee's only grocery store was on the market.
Chilhowee is a small town in west central Missouri. Its population stretches to little more than 300, within the city limits. The next closest grocery lies more than 15 miles away in Holden. If Chilhowee's grocery store shut down the Kerksiecks feared their town would lose a vital cog.
The Kerksiecks chose Chilhowee as their home because of its proximity to Brandon's work. He's an aircraft production controller at Whiteman Air Force Base, about 25 miles east of Chilhowee. They feel it's a great place to raise their kids. And the town also reminds Brandon of his childhood home in Barrytown, a rural burg of 200 in west central Alabama.
"I have great memories of where I grew up and I want my family to experience that same feeling of community and neighborliness that you get in rural America," says Brandon.
A few weeks after it first appeared, the "For Sale" sign in the store's window got bigger. So the Kerksiecks got serious. They had never run a business, but they figured they could learn.
They started the business-buying process in February 2010 by first talking with the owners, Vernon and Joan Houts. That conversation led them to the realtor, Darrell Anstine. Their next step was to talk with a business loan officer. Dwight Anstine — Darrell's father — at F&C Bank in Holden, was the third banker they had visited.
Dwight told the young couple their idea of keeping the Chilhowee Grocery in operation was noble, but they needed a better idea of what they were getting into. He encouraged the Kerksiecks to talk with Tracy Brantner, executive director of the Johnson County Economic Development Corp. Dwight also handed the Kerksieck's loan request to another loan officer at F&C, Jeff Florida, to complete the financing process.
Tracy opened their eyes to the bigger picture of owning a rural retail business. She also pointed them to yet another resource for small business owners ... the Small Business & Technology Development Center at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.
Darrell Brammer and his business counseling team at the SBTDC, added to the advice the Kerksiecks received from Brantner. These business experts helped the Kerksiecks explore the financial factors to consider. They also assisted the couple in developing a business plan, which the Kerksiecks needed to apply for a loan.
After reviewing the plan F&C Bank approved the SBA-guaranteed loan, which covered the biggest part of the purchase price. Brandon and Chris contributed their own capital for the balance. The Houts provided some training and orientation, and on April 29, 2010, the Kerksiecks became the latest owners in a 60-year line of Chilhowee Grocery proprietors.
"Brandon and Chris reorganized most of the store, labeled the shelves, reduced the price on as many items as possible and started offering hot food," says Brammer. "To support the community they started offering locally grown produce and baked goods."
The first day after taking over the store, the new owners encountered a significant stumbling block. Because of the transfer of the store's ownership, the Kerksiecks learned they were unable to accept food stamps or an EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card from their customers. And the food stamp trade had been a significant part of the business.
Normally, a retailer's food-stamp-transaction application process with the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service could take 45 days. Such a delay would have serious implications for the grocery store's survival. To battle the red tape and avoid business disaster, Brandon and Chris enlisted the help of Brammer and Brantner, who worked with federal officials to reduce the application process to less than a week.
"Crisis averted, thanks to Tracy Brantner's connections," recalls Brandon.
Another FNS program for which the Kerksiecks are applying as a retail provider is the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, which focuses on economically disadvantage families. As soon as Chilhowee Grocery is accepted as a retailer by WIC, the store will be able to accept WIC checks from patrons of the program.
"To gain WIC endorsement, we must carry specific items (such as infant formula, cereals, juice, milk, etc.) for the nutritional benefit of pregnant women, new mothers and their infants and young children," says Chris. "We already carry those, so we hope to get through the approval process soon."
With a year of business experience under their belts, Brandon and Chris are learning to appreciate all the details that go into running a business. They're also realizing the important relationship of their store to the community.
"We know it's going to take time, but we want to expand our services to include a café, an ice cream parlor and a small movie theater," says Brandon. "We've got the room to expand. It's just a matter of generating the cash flow."
The overall concept the Kerksiecks are promoting — the grocery store as the hub of a rural community — illustrates the premise of the Rural Grocery Store Initiative (www.ruralgrocery.org) at Kansas State University. The project emphasizes the sustainability of rural grocery stores and promotes their contributions to the life of small towns.
"The Kerksiecks saw a need to help a community that would lose more of its vitality if the grocery store closed," says Brammer, the UCM SBTDC business specialist. "They are supporting the community in many different ways."
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This story was featured in the May 2011 newsletter.
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