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“Self-Serve” Saves Small-Town Grocery
Not many towns with a population of 600 people, like Evansville, Minn., can claim a grocery store, much less one that is high-tech and self-serve. Customers who have paid the $75 annual membership can access the Main Street Market 24 hrs. a day. They use a phone app to open the door, scan their items, and pay. No phone? No problem. Members without a phone can use a key fob to get in.
“Evansville lost its grocery in 2017, and we wanted to bring one back. However, sustaining a store with traditional hours wasn’t going to work,” says Alex Ostenson. “Even with regular hours, a lot of people in the area commute to work and don’t get home until evening.”
Ostenson, a diesel mechanic, and his wife Caileen looked for an alternative. What they came up with was a self-serve membership store. They put it in place, and locals stepped up to join.
For those who prefer personal service, the market is open Tuesdays and Thursdays (9-5) and Saturdays (9-4). While only 900 sq. ft., the market offers everything from snacks and sodas to name-brand grocery items, frozen pizza, meat and dairy, including Millerville butter (Vol. 42, No. 6).
“We’ve been open about a year and a half, and it’s going well,” says Ostenson.
It’s going so well that the Ostensons are in the process of expanding the concept to a neighboring town that was in danger of losing its only grocery. The Hoffman Market is 3,500 sq. ft. and is not yet self-serve.
“When we announced we were taking over the store, some people were concerned we would only be open 3 days a week like in Evansville, while others said they were ready to buy a membership,” says Ostenson. “We assured them we’re going to keep regular hours and later expand to self-serve.”
They’ve had to work out details with state regulators, as they did with the Main Street Market. “Getting state approvals for such a new concept was our biggest challenge in Evansville,” recalls Ostenson.
“When the state gets on board, it’ll be really good for a lot of communities,” he says. “We’ve already heard from others in Minnesota.”
The interest is not just in Minnesota. The Ostensons were invited to speak about their concept at a national grocer’s conference in Kansas this past summer.
“I’ve had meetings with people in Arkansas and Vermont and had emails from California and Canadian provinces, as well as Washington and Nevada,” says Ostenson. “I’m doing some consulting with folks that want to do something similar, and we’re investigating setting up a franchise model. People like the idea, but most don’t have the time or resources to set it up themselves.”
Thanks to a $30,000 stipend from a regional foundation, Ostenson is working full-time on the concept. That includes fine-tuning it and working out inefficiencies. They have a Facebook page and are planning to set up a website. Adding grocery delivery to their list of services is also being considered.
While they carry some local items like honey, they hope to do more with local producers. This past summer they received several unexpected donations to their produce shelves.
“One day a farmer came in with watermelons he had grown,” says Ostenson. “They’re too expensive to get from our distributor, but he said we could have them free. We had others come in with tomatoes. They all said they had more than they needed and wanted to share.”
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Mainstreet Market, 113 Main St., Evansville, Minn. 56326 (MSMEvansville@outlook.com; https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100057079615598).

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2023 - Volume #47, Issue #1