VERNDALE -- Dawn Fisher faced a panicky situation last week, one that only a mother of five growing boys could fully appreciate.
There was no bread in town.
"We go through a loaf of bread and a gallon a milk a day," she said Thursday of her Verndale farm family of five boys and two adults.
Her scary moment may turn into a recurring one with today's 5 p.m. closing of the Verndale Grocery. For the first time in more than 100 years Verndale will be without a grocery store.
In the past few weeks the store quit ordering fresh food and has concentrated on clearing its shelves. Other Verndale locations, mostly service station/convenience stores, sell bread, but not in great quantities.
Fisher, who works at the Pirate's Den, a restaurant located just across Farwell Street from the grocery store, said she had to travel seven miles to Wadena for the bread. Having grown accustomed to making almost daily stops at Verndale Grocery for milk and bread, she found it strange to travel out of town for her staple food items.
"It's so strange," she said of the town's dilemma.
It will be very strange at 5 p.m. today when Verndale Grocery's manager, Dean Kopp, 39, closes the doors to the store. The store's only full-time employee, Kopp has worked there for 23 years. He called in sick one day when he had the flu.
Kopp has stocked shelves, cut meat, changed light bulbs and done just about everything else necessary with the help of five part-time employees.
Although the store's open seven days a week, Kopp's work schedule usually allowed him to take Saturday afternoons and Sundays off. He said the closing of the store caught him by surprise.
Customers in the town of 560 aren't pleased with the decision.
"They're pretty disappointed," he said. "Pretty sad."
About two years ago Verndale Grocery started selling packaged meat instead of its own fresh meat and that might have been one factor in the store's demise, he said.
He also pointed to the expansion of service stations and large retail stores into the grocery business and his conclusion that "people are eating out more."
A few customers strolled through the aisles as Kopp talked about the closing Thursday afternoon, taking advantage of the 20 percent discounts designed to help clear the shelves.
Kopp said some customers use his store only for items such as milk and bread, going elsewhere for the bulk of their shopping. Other faithful customers come in like clockwork for all of their groceries. He said he feels bad for the older customers who might not be able to drive to another location for groceries. They ask him, "Now what are we going to do." He doesn't have any answers.
Agnes Winkels, manager of the town's senior center and a 55-year resident of the area, is one of the townspeople who has posed that question.
She said the town has some older residents who can't drive and others "that shouldn't be driving." With no stoplight in town, she worries about some of the older folks who might try to cross the traffic on Highway 10 to get to a store that sells milk or bread.
She bought most of her groceries for the center's nutrition program at the Verndale Grocery.
"It's going to hurt the whole town," she said. "It's a funny situation."
Al Erbe, an owner of Verndale Grocery, who also owns Ernie's Food Market in Staples, succinctly described the store's problem.
"It wasn't making money," he said Thursday by phone. "It wasn't making any."
In order to stay operational, he said the store has to pay for itself. The store has been for sale for about a year and he said negotiations are going on that might allow the store to be sold.
Brad Schmidt, owner of the Pirate's Den, charges about $500 a month at the Verndale Grocery. He'll miss the convenience of having a store nearby.
"If we're out of tomatoes, we ran across the street," he said.
Ronald L. Johnson, a retiree who lives just down the street from the grocery store, wondered how the store's closing would affect the town's future.
"A lot of people are really upset about it," Johnson said. "Not too many people are going to move to a town without a grocery store."
Although he's lived there for only three years, Johnson prefers Verndale's laid-back atmosphere to the hustle of big cities. He said he's lived in 55 locations but prefers Verndale to all the others.
"This is the friendliest, nicest place I've seen in my life," he said.
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