May 17, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — It's hard to miss Bergen's Prairie Market, and not only because there aren't too many other businesses along Milan's wide main street.
There's a huge hand-painted mural on the front of the grocery store depicting Milan's Norwegian-settler heritage.
Inside, the store's proprietor Bergen Standahl says the painting lures passers-by off of Highway 7 and onto Main Street.
"What I am finding is small business people need to stick together whether it's a cafe, a bank, a gas station," he says. "If one falls, everybody feels a ripple effect."
Standahl bought Milan's grocery store a couple of years ago from the town's mayor, Ron Anderson.
Health problems drove Anderson out of the business after 20 years. Anderson says he gave Standahl a good deal on his store, hoping that without too much debt, Standahl could make the business work. Anderson says keeping the grocery store open is critical to Milan's future.
"People have to have a reason to come here," he says. "You know, if you lose something it won't be replaced in these communities. It just doesn't happen. And again, it's just not Milan. It's everybody out here. You drive up and down the Main streets of all these little towns, there's not much left in any of them."
Despite Milan's remote location, there are several large grocery chain-stores nearby.
"I don't know that I try and even compete with them. I try to find a niche with local customers," Standahl says.
Standahl tries to keep his prices competitive. But most importantly he strives to offer his customers things they can not get at the big stores.
"Ideally you want to separate yourself from the crowd," he says.
Standahl sells conventional grocery items. But everywhere you look you'll also find specialty products; imported Norwegian candies, cheeses and coffees, locally produced food, toys, gifts and rental movies.
It's exactly the approach retail consultant Thom Winninger says small businesses need to take in the face of chain-store competition.
"Find the gaps. Merchandise to the gaps. What don't they have, you can carry. That's where the secret is at," he says. "You can tie into local convenience. You can tie into local uniqueness. You can tie into local ethnicity. So in other words, display your store like the heritage of the community."
What Winniger studies comes naturally to Standahl.
"We have a few ranchers in the area who offer grass fed beef and that's popular. It's really a nice little niche market to have," he says.
And there are fresh, local free-range eggs.
"These are from a farm locally here in Milan. They're very nice eggs. We do quit well with those. They're a little bit more money, but they're worth the price," he says.
And as Standahl moves through his store he shows a visitor other specialy products, including varieties of Scandinavian products. "And we come to now some of these Swedish coffees I was telling you about--Nordquist, Laufberg's. These are very delicious coffees. They do very well in the local market here. We sell quit a few of them on our Web site too."
Standahl's Web site has been up for about a year. He says on-line sales are a tiny percentage of his business now, but that his imported specialties are attracting customers from as far away as New York City.
But in Milan, his cutomers prefer the face-to-face approach.
"Bergen's great. He's just what we needed in Milan here."
Like most of Standahl's customers, Deloris Thompson, is a regular who depends on the store being in town.
"I would have to change my ways of cooking and shopping tremendously if I had to go out of town for every item I needed," she says. "Some weeks I am down here every day. It's really an asset to our community."
Standahl took considerable risk jumping into the small town grocery business at a time when many small stores are closing. But he says he's optimistic he'll be able to make it by providing exceptional service and continuing to carve out a niche.
"It has its tough times," he says. "There's not always a lot of money in the bank, but that's to be expected. I always want to keep the store looking like it's full, and that was the one thing that I wanted to bring to the store when I did take it over, is that any time of the year it looks like we're in business. And that was the key."
There's a push in Milan now to reopen the gas station. Community leaders say if people could buy gas in Milan it would just be another reason to come into town and any increase in traffic would benefit all of Milan's businesses.