If a single mom struggling to make ends meet couldn't afford to buy food for her children, she knew she could go to Heart Grocery in Brainerd and charge those items on her running tab to get by that month.
But the owners of "the little store with the big heart" can no longer afford to run their business pulled by their own heartstrings as they have for the past seven years.
The small neighborhood grocery store in southwest Brainerd, known for its penny candy and senior home deliveries, nearly closed this spring because money was so tight. Some customers weren't paying their bills, which grew into a big financial problem for owners Jan and Darrell Otness.
"For six years we charged for everybody and we basically trusted everybody," said Jan. "I guess I'd rather somebody fed their kids once on me and I would know the kids were being fed. We lost customers because we stopped charging, but we had to."
Instead of closing the store, the Otnesses have found a way they hope will keep their business open. Darrell recently converted about one-third of the store into a bicycle repair shop and Jan is selling Avon. This meant less retail space for the grocery store, which is now primarily a convenience store that continues to carry groceries, said Jan.
The couple also stopped allowing customers to keep running tabs, which ultimately did cost them some business. They also lost business from customers who are choosing to get their groceries at the larger grocery stores in town.
Jan said they considered closing the store and continuing to shop for area seniors, but they realized it wouldn't have been a venture that could stay afloat. That's why they made changes in the way they run their business.
"We did it because we were actually thinking about closing and we wanted to hang in there for a while," said Jan. "It's been a tough year. People have been going to the big stores to save money. I can't blame them. We'll try to hang in here and try to keep the lights on."
Jan and Darrell Otness have owned Heart Grocery in Brainerd for seven years. They have had to change the way they do business and scale back their services or else close the small neighborhood store because they were losing money. (Dispatch Photos by Steve Kohls)
Jan said one of the main reasons they're choosing to keep their store open is for the senior citizens who rely on them each week. The Otnesses take orders from about 60 senior citizens in the community who can't get out and shop on their own.
Jan then shops at the larger grocery and discount stores for her customers, charging a small mark-up fee of 7 percent, or not more than 25 cents per item. They now charge $2 to deliver the groceries, as well, so they could continue the service. It usually takes Jan anywhere from an hour to three hours to complete her shopping, which often includes items other than groceries.
"I've picked up everything from bras to tablecloths," said Jan with a laugh.
Every Tuesday and Friday, Darrell delivers the groceries to their senior customers, often putting the groceries away for them and opening milk and juice cartons if they are unable to do so themselves. He's taken a few elderly customers to the beauty salon to get their hair done, too. Most are unable to drive or don't feel comfortable driving anymore.
There are times when Darrell is the only person who regularly checks on his senior customers. A few times he has come to the aid of his customers while delivering groceries, finding them lying on the floor, unable to get up after they've fallen.
He regularly visits his senior customers he's become close to when they've had to enter an area nursing home. Recently he lost three customers in two weeks.
"He gets close to them," said Jan.
"Too close," added her husband.
"But then he'll meet a new one who's fun and feisty," said Jan as she smiled at Darrell.
The small store has been around for about 55 years, located at the corner of Southwest Fourth Street and Ethel Street in southwest Brainerd. The store was formerly Kep's Superette, owned by Larry and Dorothy Keppers.
Its name was changed to Heart Grocery because customers kept telling the Otnesses that they had big hearts.
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