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Greg Schwezer, right, with the University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnership discusses strategies for displaying and keeping fresh produce with Bergen Standahl of Bergen’s Prairie Market Wednesday in Milan. (TOM CHERVENY | TRIBUNE)

Grocery store thrives in tiny Milan, Minn.

MILAN, Minn. — A small grocery store in Milan, population 369, sets this community apart from many others of its size in rural Minnesota.

And it’s not because Bergen’s Prairie Market offers frozen octopus, sells soy sauce in one-gallon containers, carries Scandinavian delicacies such as fishballs, or stocks its shelves with locally milled flour. 

Bergen’s Prairie Market provides residents in Milan with access seven days a week to a wide assortment of fresh produce and healthy food staples.

“(There’s) not many stores in a town this size with a large variety of goods,’’ said Bergen Standahl, owner of the Milan store. “We’re kind of rare, is what I’m told.’’

He’s right, which is why Standahl was addressing visitors in his store this week from the Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension Service. The Partnership is working to help small-town grocers. It wants to assure that rural residents continue to have access to healthy foods, according to its executive director, David Fluegel.

Greater Minnesota has lost 14 percent of its small-town grocery stores during the years 2000-2013, with a 9 percent loss reported in the southwestern region of the state, according to the Center for Rural Policy Development in Mankato.

People don’t always realize it, but there are a significant number of people in rural communities in the region who remain food insecure, Fluegel said. “All this rich soil where we can grow food, and yet the number of number of people” with ready access to healthy foods in rural communities is on the decline, he said.

Many small towns have become food deserts, where convenience stores with limited selections of processed foods have replaced grocery stores, he added. Those with limited transportation options — such as seniors and low income persons — are the most affected.

The Partnership hosted the visit Wednesday to Bergen’s Prairie Market as part of a seminar in Milan to focus on strategies to help rural grocers maintain fresh produce. It’s all part of an overall strategy to help them compete.

Small-town grocers face similar challenges, according to Karen Lanthier with the Partnership. In 2015, the University sent a survey to 254 grocery stores in communities under 2,500 population in the state, and 175 of them responded with a nearly unanimous voice. Competition from large chain grocery stores in bigger communities (97 percent), high operating costs (95 percent) and narrow profits (94 percent), were the top three challenges they cited, she said.

Standahl considers himself fortunate. Milan has a diverse population. More than one-half of the community’s residents are from an island in Micronesia. They are young families with children, and a tradition of doing a lot of cooking. “Which is good for a grocery business,’’ said Standahl.

He’s also got a good ear, and that is very important. He said he listens to his customers to know what types of items they want, and does his best to stock them. Frozen octopus, 20-pound bags of rice, and soy sauce by the gallon are among the food items he stocks for his Micronesian customers.

Standahl also caters to the community’s Scandinavian heritage, stocking treats imported from Norway and other ethnic goods, including lutefisk during the holiday season.

There’s a Hispanic population in the community too, and Standahl works with other suppliers to stock the food items they prefer.

The store stocks as many locally produced goods as possible. Ryan Pesch, with the University of Minnesota Extension, encouraged participants at the Milan session to work with local growers to sell their products and even serve as a drop site for community-supported agriculture ventures. It all draws customer traffic, he said.

Standahl agrees. He prominently displays the flours produced by Dry Weather Creek of Milan and the EarthRise Farm eggs raised by Sisters Kay and Annette Fernholz outside of Madison. There are customers who come to the store specifically for them, he said.

Standahl grew up in Willmar and was working in landscaping in the Twin Cities when the opportunity to purchase the Milan store came up 14 years ago. He’s never turned back. “I enjoy people, so it’s a good job to have,’’ he said.

One of the first changes he made was to open the store on Sundays. His Sunday hours — from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. — are the busiest in terms of sales per hour, he said. That’s because many of the young adults in the community are working six days a week.

Being innovative, and knowing how to tap the support that exists, is critical for small town grocers. Just ask Bonnie Carlson, who operates Bonnie’s Home Grocery in Clinton, population 449. Carlson told participants at the Milan seminar that she was at a loss as to how she could replace the store’s aged freezers that were costly to maintain and operate. She turned to the Internet and launched a Kickstarter campaign. It raised over $18,000 in pledges. “A lot of people donated who I do not even know,’’ she said.

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