Small-town grocery stores are the heart of rural communities, yet many face significant challenges. RSDP works closely with rural grocers across Minnesota to address their needs and provide critical resources to support them.
Like any small business owner will tell you, it’s all about wearing multiple hats. But in Aaron Bakke’s case, it might actually be multiple aprons.
“I’m running the entire store. I’m the head meat cutter, I do inventory, I answer phone calls, I’m the sole maintenance man and janitor,” says Bakke. “I’m doing all of it.”
Bakke opened his shop - Aaron’s Grocery - at the beginning of 2021. He worked under the previous owners for 20 years before taking over. Located more than twenty miles from Crookston, the town of Fertile, MN (Pop. 804) is where the store calls home. The shop serves as a wide-reaching community staple for out-of-towners, passers-by and locals, alike.
“I have two big lakes within 12 miles, so I’m busy in the summer with my ‘lake people’ and I also have my regulars who don’t leave town,” says Bakke, “My customers want convenience. If I’m doing a good job and my product is good, they have no reason to go elsewhere.”
In addition to other groceries, Aaron’s sells an array of fresh fruits and vegetables, like apples, oranges, carrots, broccoli, peppers and much more. In fact, his store is known as one of the few places in the area where people can purchase fresh produce, meats and cheeses. Without it, the area would be at risk of becoming a less-than-fertile food desert.
When he took over the store, Aaron knew one of his biggest obstacles was going to be improving energy efficiency and reducing energy costs. His main goal was to start shifting his produce behind closed-door coolers.
“I was just starting out and didn’t have the resources to replace things,” recalls Bakke. “The produce cooler wasn't keeping my produce or vegetables fresh and I was losing a lot of product to the dumpster.”
Just when Aaron started to worry about keeping customers’ baskets full and shop profits fruitful, a familiar face popped up.
CERTs Counter Service
Back in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had recently been declared and restrictions were severely impacting small grocers. During the thick of it, Bakke was working the store one day, when the phone rang.
“Someone was calling to tell us about a grant type-of-deal for places that were offering curb-side assistance. It was a small amount, just a few hundred dollars, but we were still operating and it was expensive. That’s how I got into it, it was all over a phone call.”
The caller was Shannon Stassen, of the University of Minnesota Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP.) Stassen was spreading the word about RSDP Rapid Response funding for urgent community needs related to COVID-19. Bakke admits that at first he was skeptical of the offer.
“But then I thought, ‘it’s the U of M, it’s legit,’” says Bakke. “When the check showed up, just like that, I kind of built some trust in Shannon.”
A year later, Bakke had taken over the store when that familiar face, Shannon Stassen, reached out again. This time, he was sharing information about the Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) Seed Grant Program and other support opportunities.
“I’m a grocer by trade, so this is not really in my element. Shannon stopped by several times and talked through things with me. He helped me with my wording on the application and got the ball rolling.”
Eventually, Bakke applied for and received a CERTs Seed Grant. He also rang up support from other groups, like the Good Food Access Program. Meaning Aaron could replace a few of his coolers with more energy efficient ones.
“Aaron’s Grocery is a community hub and the perfect candidate for CERTs support,” says Stassen, now the Executive Director of the Northwest RSDP. “Aaron’s provides crucial food access to the area, plus it’s the only store within 25 miles that accepts WIC. The new cooler is energy efficient, enabling Aaron to continue supporting our community with fresh, healthy produce.”
Bakke says the support he received from CERTs, RSDP and Shannon, made all the difference.
“I would never have had time or resources to look all this up. Shannon and his team kept track of dates and timelines, plus helped with logistics,” says Bakke. “I was really fortunate to have that. If it wasn’t for him, I would’ve missed out.”
Cold produce, warm community
Aaron’s shiny new cooler is complete with doors that close to keep food fresh, LED lights and an upgraded, more reliable energy source. It was a big change for Bakke, but also the town.
“It’s like when a family gets a new car, and they're all excited. I had that - I got a cooler in the shop and everyone was really excited. My customers are happy. They feel like they're shopping in a big store now and they praise how much better the produce is in quality.”
With the biggest item crossed off his grocery list, Bakke has had the resources to make other small updates to the store. The project’s success tastes almost as great as his fresh produce.
“My customers know me and that I've always been here. Then I go and do a big project, and they really appreciate that. Whether it was me financing the whole thing or not. It was me taking the initiative. But I was short staffed, and overwhelmed and there was no way I could go through the process on my own. It took someone like Shannon and RSDP to help me along.”