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Chatfield grocery closes doors after 10 years

Fri, Aug 29th, 2003
Posted in Features

"Red pickup, yet?" inquired Bob Vondal of his customer as he carried two bags of groceries out the stores doors. Vondal, a 30-year veteran in the grocery business, has been subdued lately as he prepared to close the doors on his 8,600 square foot store. Competition and the changing landscape of small towns in rural America have left its mark on the small grocery store. Bobs Food Pride closed its doors for business on August 30. An auction on September 9 will sell his equipment. Brighter daysVondal and his wife, Cheri, became hooked on this areas scenery more than ten years ago when they lived in Gackle, North Dakota. Brief visits to the Twin Cities and further south drew the family to the valleys of southeastern Minnesota. The Dakota grocery owner and his schoolteacher wife and their four children, moved to Chatfield 10 years ago come October. "The kids would always help when we had special sales," beamed their father. Landon, now 24, is a bottleshop manager in Fargo North Dakota. Josh, 22, was the Food Prides Assistant Manager until the recent decision to close. He is attending Rochester Community College. Megan, 19, finished cosmetology and is employed in Rochester. Ben, 14, is a serious sports player. And Jenna, 7, is in the second grade. Their mom, Cheri, is a kindergarten teacher in the Chosen Valley School District. Along with the Vondal children, there has been a long list of high school and college students who have also worked at the grocery store. These individuals helped with bookkeeping, checking out groceries, and stocking shelves. The grocery had an average of 20-25 employees at any given time with the local youths making up a good share of the list. Vondal talks highly of the students hes worked with. "Weve had some good years. Wed even been able to start giving some sort of benefits until three years ago," Vondal said. Three years ago is when, according to Vondal, the economic structure of his business took a turn as competition moved in.The price of competition"It all started with trying to clean up the livestock barn area," said Vondal, referring to where Skippys grocery store is now located. The site is a high traffic area at the edge of town, catching the eye of those traveling from Rochester jobs and tourists making their way through the area. It is an important location both economically and aesthetically. As the wheels of progress started to turn, the undeveloped property changed hands, and Don Lanning, operator of Dons IGA in Spring Valley approached the city about developing the property. There was a belief in the community at the time that many Chatfield shoppers were doing their shopping in Rochester. Studies showed that 50-60% of the local people did their shopping outside of the community, including buying groceries. "I did a market study that showed unmet sales potential of $66-67,000," noted Vondal. A separate study showed this market potential at around $250,000. But Vondal was advised by a supplier in the grocery business that the $66,000 figure was more realistic. "I was offered $6 per foot with no TIF dollars," pointed out Vondal when he researched the possibility of building in a new location. In his view, neither expansion nor re-location were viable risks to make, given, what he viewed was, a limited bottom line. He chose to continue leasing the building where Bobs Food Pride was located. Since then, Skippys grocery store has been built, and a post office, bank, and a second pharmacy have been located at the site. Groceries operate on tight margins and rely on volume to generate revenue. Over the last three years, Vondal estimates he has lost half of his business to competition with Skippys.Lost OpportunityI am really sad that Bobs is closing its doors, Chatfield City Administrator Joel Young said. Young pointed out that Chatfield, like most small towns, respond to developers requests when considering Tax Increment Financing. We (Chatfield) dont run around trying to attract new industry or competition to town using TIF, Young said, noting that the developer approached the city and the EDA about developing the site. One criteria the EDA always uses in evaluating an application is whether the market is already satisfied. Controversial at the time, both the EDA and City Council voted to use TIF dollars to help develop the infrastructure at the site. But Young points out that at the end of the day, Lanning, in developing Skippys, had a very different understanding of the economic risks involved in the project. Some of this is generational change, Young said. Several years ago, you had three or four grocery stores downtown. Now, the ideal site for a grocery is to be on the edge of town surrounded by other retail outlets for convenience of shoppers. He believes the Skippys development will actually help expand the downtown commercial district. The future Though the last three years have been rough, Vondal appreciates the loyalty of his employees and patrons. He could have made more money doing something else, he says, but liked the freedom of running his own business. "Wed like to stay here. Ben is real active in sports. Cheri has been a teacher here for seven years", reflects the retiring grocer. Hes not sure what his options are yet, though he is taking stock of what is available. Vondal says it would be very difficult to relocate and leave behind the many friends the family has made during its years of running the grocery store. John Torgrimson contributed to this article.

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