Gabe Salvage was on the phone when the cook from the local senior meals program approached the counter. Seeing he was busy, she held up two packets of Fleischman’s Active Dry Yeast and continued out the door.
Salvage, who’s operated the Wheeler County Trading Co. in Mitchell for two years, didn’t miss a beat. “Two at $2.25, $4.50,” he said, and explained to his caller that he was filling out a paper invoice that he uses with his 26 charge accounts. He knew the cook and she knew him, and they’d settle up later. Fridays are senior meal day in Mitchell and the cook needed to get busy.
Which Salvage also knew, and that may be the point about rural grocery stores, the people who run them and the people who depend on them for food and more.
“Yeah, we’re very connected in small communities,” Salvage said.
For many rural Oregonians, especially in the long, empty spaces of Eastern Oregon, the local store is among the “anchor” institutions, said Bruce Weber, professor emeritus of Oregon State University’s Rural Studies program.
The local paper and the local bank are gone or diminished in many cases, and communities scramble to provide education and healthcare. Local businesses, almost always small, are pressed by technological change, by the economies of scale, and by lack of access to capital, Weber said.
Still, people have to eat, and for many in rural Oregon a trip to the supermarket is a matter of miles, not minutes.
Portland has dozens of Safeway, Albertsons and Fred Meyer stores, but from Mitchell, population 125, it’s 48 miles to the Thriftway in Prineville and 70 miles to the Thriftway in John Day.
Some rural residents make monthly expeditions to the Costcos and Walmarts of larger towns, because people will save money where they can. If someone from Mitchell is going to Prineville for other things, Salvage said, they’ll get some cheaper groceries, too. That’s just the reality.
Salvage and other operators in one-store towns thus find themselves carrying everything from bacon and eggs to bait and tackle, not to mention hardware, seed, toys, school supplies and kitchen utensils.
They carry canned and frozen goods, fresh milk, meat, bread and vegetables for the locals, of course, but in fine balance with pre-packaged snacks and drinks for summertime tourists.
“We have to sell everything,” said Salvage, who was a general contractor in Lebanon, in the Willamette Valley, before moving his family to Mitchell and taking over the store his grandparents once ran.
Joe McNeill, second generation operator of the Fossil Mercantile Co. in the Wheeler County seat 47 miles north, likewise juggles what he carries in the store.
McNeill said he feels a responsibility to have what people need. If he forgets to order enough eggs from his supplier, for example, he’s found himself driving 90 miles to buy some at a Cash & Carry, now called Smart Foodservice, in The Dalles.
“You get a feel for what people need and want,” McNeill said.
There’s more depth to that responsibility than making an unplanned egg run. “The Merc” as it’s known, also is Fossil’s community meeting place, McNeill said.
“If people haven’t seen each other for a week or a couple weeks or a month, they’ll talk in the aisle for an hour,” McNeill said.
Jeff Bailey, president of the Bank of Eastern Oregon, based in Heppner, said the small hometown store fills a particular niche. In addition to selling everything from produce to camping supplies, “It’s still kind of the social hub in some of these smaller communities,” he said.
“Local citizens are still strong supporters of local businesses, they tend to band together,” Bailey said. “The store owners know they’ve got to provide the basics of what people want to keep that relationship strong.”
Rhonda Shaffer, a loan officer at the Bank of Eastern Oregon’s branch in Condon, the Gilliam County seat, said she makes a point of shopping at Two Boys Meat and Grocery in town.
“If I happen to be traveling out of town to visit family, I’ll hit Costco for bulk products,” she said. “But my husband and I do 90 percent of our shopping locally.”
Small town stores such as Two Boys and the Fossil Mercantile often are family businesses with deep roots, Shaffer said.
“They’re like the last frontier in some of these rural communities,” she said. “Without them we would lose our communities.”
Salvage, the Wheeler County Trading Co. operator, said he and others face thin profit margins. His electricity bill ranges from $700 to $1,000 a month, mostly to keep the store’s refrigerators and freezers operating.
Liability insurance, taxes, license and regulatory fees and labor cost him thousands per year. He said he’s making a go of it, but hasn’t taken a vacation in two years or done much in the way of recreation.
The social role and economic health of rural grocery stores is a concern to urban and university researchers and activists, as well. They warn of rural areas becoming “food deserts” as consolidation in the grocery industry results in fewer and larger stores.
In a series of studies from 1987 to 2004, rural sociologists and Iowa State University concluded many rural areas had “higher food prices, less variety, and lower quality fresh produce and meat” than cities and suburbs. For most rural residents, industry contraction simply means driving farther for groceries. But older and low-income people often are less able to travel or drive, lack reliable transportation, may depend on neighbors and family to help them shop and limit outings to one store, according to the research.
One Iowa study referred to the situation as a “perverse irony that the poorest have to pay more for a basic necessity of life.”
Those realities were a major factor Cathy Eldred, and her husband, Daryl, buying the Burnt River Market and Motel in Unity eight years ago. The store had shut down right before elk season, Eldred said, and “It was a wreck.”
Unity, population 70, is 47 miles from Baker City, 50 miles from John Day and 65 miles from Vale. The Eldreds live 90 miles away in New Plymouth, Idaho, where Daryl Eldred farms. But Cathy Eldred has a cow-calf operation in Hereford, Ore., close to Unity, and was particularly concerned about the situation.
She employs a store manager and goes to the store herself once or twice a week, more often in summer. The only delivery trucks that still go to Unity bring liquor, beer and Coca-Cola products. For the rest, Cathy Eldred buys at Costco, Walmart or Smart Foodservice, loads a refrigerated trailer she pulls with her pickup and delivers to the store herself.
Eldred said she marks up the goods about 10 percent to offset her cost, time and travel. Some of the old timers grumble a little bit about that.
The market includes a cafe, fuel pumps and motel rooms, and serves as a community gathering spot, Eldred said. Some of the older people in the area can’t drive to get groceries.
“You feel an obligation to keep the doors open year-round,” she said.
At Fields Station in the far southeast corner of Oregon, owner Jake Downs sells groceries, propane, diesel and gas, including the non-ethanol premium favored by motorcycle groups that pass through. The complex includes a motel and RV park, and has a small cafe famous for its milkshakes — Downs said he sold 7,367 milkshakes in 2019.
Downs took over the store two years ago from his parents. He said it’s a “decent little business to have.” The store, he said, carries “things people run out of, out here.”
Distance is a major factor in what food the store sells. For grocery supplies, it’s 111 miles to Burns, 114 to Boise, Idaho, and 121 miles to Winnemucca, Nevada. The Costco in Bend is 240 miles away.
“We carry a lot more shelf-stable food,” Downs said. “You walk that fine line of how much expirable food you carry, so you’re not wasting any of it.”
He acknowledged the station might seem “a little different” to urban people accustomed to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
“It’s not a food desert,” Downs said, “but you can’t be as picky.”