“I was worried about leaving the local community without a grocery store to shop at,” said Winger, 69, whose parents opened the Royal Super Mart in 1940, and Winger took it over in 1985. When the store first opened, it was one of four grocery stores in town. Now, it’s the last one standing.
Since there was no one in his family who could continue running the store, Winger — who also runs an appliance store in town — contemplated selling. He put the store on the market three years ago, and although he got some interest, no viable offers came in. Eventually, he pulled the store off the market, as he worried that whoever bought the building might not continue the grocery store, which would make life harder for people in the community — especially those without access to a vehicle.
“That’s why we kept operating,” he said.
Then last summer, Elizabeth Pratt, who grew up in a nearby town, and has lived in Sheffield for 12 years, approached Winger with an idea.
“I knew that the loss of the store would be devastating to a little town like ours,” Pratt said.
Pratt understood Winger’s predicament and didn’t want him to feel obliged to continue postponing his retirement.
“It’s very hard in a small town to feel like you’re abandoning your community in that way. He was hanging on, as long as he could,” Pratt said.
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She offered to raise money through her nonprofit — a local wellness center called Cornerstone Community Wellness — to buy the store, with the goal of transforming it into a sustainable social enterprise, which is a business that reinvests its profits into its mission. This would ensure people would not have to leave Sheffield to buy fresh food.
In a matter of months, the community raised $500,000 — which was enough for Cornerstone Community Wellness to purchase the property and overhaul the store. Roughly 125 individuals donated, and contributions ranged from $5 to $50,000. About 15 percent of donations came from grants and corporations, including Ameren Illinois and Royal Neighbors of America.
“Raising half a million dollars in a small rural community, that was huge,” said Mary Lanham, the village president of Sheffield. “People stepped up.”
“The grocery store is the heart of the town,” she added.
On its website, Royal Super Mart explained why it will not change its name: “Big box stores exist, but we don’t think ‘super’ is an overstatement. Don’t think of ‘super’ in relation to size. We are super fun (at least we think so), super kind, super at meeting the small town need.”
Sheffield residents who donated were aware of the role local grocery stores play in both community and economic development in areas like Sheffield. They also saw how the loss of independent supermarkets hurt other small towns.
“It’s one of those, ‘you don’t know what you got till it’s gone’ stories,” Pratt said.
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The number of grocery stores in rural counties has declined across the country, making it more difficult for residents to get fresh food. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 76 counties in the U.S. do not have a grocery store.
As a result, residents — particularly those who struggle financially — are left with scant options, and often resort to buying less healthy, processed foods that are sold at convenience stores.
Pat Stier, 70, was born and raised in Sheffield, and explained that having a grocery store in town with fresh produce and meat “means convenience, especially for us older people,” she said. Losing the supermarket, “would have been a hardship.”
Without a grocery store, Pratt feared for the fate of the town.
“Rural grocery stores are economic anchors,” she said.
Small-town supermarkets contribute to economic growth by supporting jobs, as well as local farmers and suppliers. They also are social centers.
“It’s a place to bump into neighbors, and keep up with each other’s lives,” Pratt said.
Plus, losing the grocery would make it challenging for some nearby businesses to stay afloat.
“If people have to leave for food, they’ll shop elsewhere. Then your hardware store would close and boutiques would close,” said Pratt, noting that local grocery stores encourage more foot traffic, leading people to shop at other small businesses in town.
“The people who can afford to drive 15 miles to another town for food will take their business elsewhere. If they’re at a big-box store, it’s convenient to just pick up your supplies while you’re there,” she continued. “The people with the least amount of resources are essentially left with the least amount of resources.”
Pratt hatched a plan to ensure that didn’t happen. She decided that running the local grocery store would fit within her wellness nonprofit’s mission of “bringing physical, social and economic health to our town,” she said, adding that Cornerstone Community Wellness offers fitness programs, counseling and support groups to local residents.
Winger agreed that it was the best path forward for both his store and the community.
He plans to continue running the appliance store in town, and said he will use his additional free time to enjoy his family and golf.
Of course, acquiring the supermarket and renovating it required funds. Pratt turned to Sheffield residents, as well as people with ties to the town, for support. Donations poured in.
Matthew Lanham, who grew up in Sheffield and now lives in D.C., was eager to pitch in to help. It was important to him to keep the store open.
“It’s a focal point of the community,” he said. “It’s really an amazing story; this tiny town pooling resources and keeping the store alive.”
When Cornerstone Community Wellness purchased the store from Winger, they put in new technology and equipment — including a key fob system, enabling residents to access the store between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. using self-checkout. They also added healthy, prepared-meal offerings.
“Updating the store allows us to be more competitive in the grocery world,” Pratt said. “It gives us a fresh start to compete with bigger stores.”
The store, which reopened on Aug. 1 after eight months of renovations, is being operated by Cornerstone Community Wellness as its parent organization. Any profits go right back into the business, with the goal of sustaining the store for years to come.
Three employees who previously worked at the store kept their jobs.
Luke Lanxon, 36, who grew up in Sheffield and is raising his two children there, is relieved to still have a grocery in town.
“It really stings when you have to drive 15 to 20 miles to a grocery store just to have a fresh food option,” he said. “There’s cost to that, there’s time to that, so it’s really nice to have this in our hometown.”
The revived supermarket, Lanxon said, has given him hope for the future of Sheffield.
“It’s an economic pillar that we can build our town around,” he said. “It’s a testament of our community that we can come around to one cause and all work together to make our town better.”
Winger, for his part, is thrilled that his family’s legacy will live on, and Sheffield residents will still have a local place to shop for fresh food.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he said.