Sonny’s Bucks Trends for Small Town Grocery> PenCityCurrent.com
Merschbrocks approaches a decade of operating West Point grocery store
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
WEST POINT – The economic climate has not been good for the neighborhood grocery store.
Despite the surge in grocery store sales during the COVID pandemic with restaurants and bars closed for an extended period and people squatting at home, maintaining a grocery store in rural Iowa is a challenge.
Small big box stores like Dollar General and Family Dollar, as well as neighborhood convenience stores like Casey’s, which grow like native flowers along state highways, have pinched the family grocery store.
Except the one at West Point.
Deina Merschbrock and her husband Dale have owned Sonny’s supermarket at the northeast corner of West Point Square for almost 10 years after buying the business from Jay Fraise, son of founder Sonny Fraise, in 2012. Strawberry opened the store in 1946.
Since that time, they’ve established a very unique niche and loyal following in the familiar brown brick building with the brown canopy that takes up about 1/3 of the east side of West Point Square.
A recent report from the Des Moines Register focused on small grocery stores that couldn’t stay afloat due to the influx of dollar stores and convenience stores selling small-scale grocery items as well as food services. purchase and delivery online.
Merschbrock said community engagement is what has been the driving force behind Sonny’s success in a town of less than 1,000 people.
âIt started as an investment and it has become a source of pride. There are some things that small towns need, but as small as West Point is, we have it all, âshe said.
âBut every business has to be invested in the community. Whether it was volunteering a shift or helping organize an event, that’s what we knew we had to do. You can’t be a bodybuilder, win a competition, and then stop and think you’ll hang on to your body.
Merschbrock and her husband were both employed at Crystal Ice, a mainstream ice cream company on the north side of town. Deina’s father, Dennis, founded the business and eventually sold it to Arctic Ice outside of Canada. Deina said during this transition she did not feel safe to keep her position with the company. Dale also agreed that maybe it was time for a change.
So the two left the ice cream business, Deina calling herself one of the “children of ice cream,” and went into the grocery business after a conversation with Jay.
The two have been the West Point neighborhood grocers from that point on, have volunteered for special events in the city like the Sweet Corn Festival, and are members of the West Point Club.
Both have a staff of around 16 and Deina said the training involves intensive customer service and creating an environment that brings people back even if only once a month.
âMore than anything, we try to give the customer what they deserve. Whether it’s a daily customer, weekly customer, or monthly customer, we try to make sure that we enjoy every foot that comes in the door, âshe said.
âThat’s another crazy thing about Sonny’s. When I coach people I ask them how many hands they have. They say two and I mean well then if they have more than two bags of groceries, we make them happen.
âI don’t care what they say, I tell the staff they can blame me, but we do their shopping. Again, maybe this is one of those things we can be proud of.
Deina said from a retail perspective, the store has performed very well during COVID because people need to be more at home.
She even opened the store on Sundays to allow families time to shop while someone could stay at home with the kids.
âWe thought, what can we do to help and we decided to open our doors and be accommodating. We didn’t put arrows in the aisles, we just asked people to be respectful of others and if they weren’t comfortable going in we understood and respected that.
When Dollar General opened several years ago, she first said she believed it would have a big impact on Sonny’s sales.
âI tried not to have a negative attitude. It was more of a fear of the unknown and I kept thinking about it, âshe said.
“And then a day before they even opened I thought, ‘you know, maybe that isn’t all bad. Some people would make the nine mile drive to Dollar General in Fort Madison, well maybe now that keeps them in town and they stop here to pick up some stuff as well. “
Merschbrock said it competes too much because the grocery ratio at these stores is relatively low compared to Sonny’s.
She said that having her meat counter prepared on site rather than prepackaged is a strong selling point with loyal customers. People who buy their meats from Sonny’s know it’s produced and cut on site.
âWe even know how badly some people want their bologna sliced,â Merschbrock said. âIt creates a loyalty and a customer relationship here that you can’t get in department stores and big box stores. “
Deina said she has cobbled together different ideas and continues to watch what customers react to. One of them brought in Chester Fried Chicken and provided hot lunches from a commercial kitchen. They also have barbecues on the sidewalks on Friday noon.
In a world where you can really skip grocery stores entirely, Merschbrock said she and Dale continually work to create a shopping experience and deliver more of what regular customers would be looking for in a 21st century neighborhood grocery store.
âWe serve lunch every day of the week and on Fridays we cook on the sidewalk. The challenge is to find what you want to do and to prepare it and put it on social media so that people can see it, âshe said.
She says when she’s having a rough day, she walks into her office and closes the door and thinks to herself, “Deina, you sold people ice water, you can do that.”
The grocery store also has an event center on the south side of the building where events and meetings can be held, just another way Sonny’s to stay relevant in the small community. The other side was once a flower shop and an apothecary. Merschbrock said it can seat around 100 people and food can be prepared on site for lunch or dinner.
Merschbrocks also offers catering, dry cleaning and wholesale alcohol services.
John’s Grocery in Farmington recently closed after the owners could not find anyone interested in taking over the business. Merschbrock said she hopes this doesn’t happen to Sonny.
âIt would break my heart,â she said.