by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Southwest
There are about 800 residents living in Ignacio, Colorado, a town that can be overshadowed by touristy Durango about 25 miles away. Now, Ignacio is trying to redefine itself.
Locals who want to find out what is happening with that effort and give their own input can do so at their local grocery store, the sparkly Farmers Fresh Market.
The town helped Farmers Fresh Market with a grant application it sought through the Colorado Fresh Food Financing Fund. The need was clear. There was no grocery store in Ignacio. The nearest food stores were in Bayfield, a 10-mile trip, and Durango.
“This was another truly exciting and gratifying project in which the Colorado Fresh Food Financing Fund could assist,” said Mary Lou Chapman, president of the Rocky Mountain Food Industry Association (RMFIA). “The need of the area was obvious. The outpouring of support from the community for the establishment of a modern, well-stocked grocery store was most compelling.
“Today, the community has not only embraced the new store, but many area residents proudly praise their store outside their area,” Chapman added. “It has surely added value to the town since opening in July 2015.”
For many years, residents had shopped at a Shur Valu owned and operated by the McClanahan family. The family sold the store’s operations in 2008, but held on to the property. The operator that took over the store stayed until June 2014, when it appeared the store was closed for good.
Enter Ezra and Brook Lee. They, with the help of the McClanahans, as well as Ezra’s brother, Amos, cooked up a vision for a new grocery store.
“We didn’t have really a blueprint to follow, since it’s our first go,” Amos Lee told The Shelby Report. “Fortunately, we were blessed with a lot of good help from a lot of people.”
The town of Ignacio streamlined planning reviews and approvals.
“There isn’t a lot of business here in town, so from the town’s perspective, the jobs and tax revenue that a store generates is quite significant,” Lee said.
“They’ve been very good to work with.”
Lee, most recently from Montana, had never worked in the grocery industry, had never even worked in retail, so why is he running the store in Ignacio?
“Well, that’s a good question,” said Lee, whose official title is general manager. “There were a lot of different things that fell into place, but primarily my brother, Ezra, and his wife, Brook, they wanted to open a store and do a total rebuild. I volunteered to move down here and head up the project.”
He admits it’s been a “steep learning curve.
“I was one of those people who thought ‘it seems pretty straightforward,’ but when you go into a store, you just kind of take it at face value,” Lee said. “That’s true with anything. You don’t really understand the ins and outs of all that goes into most things if you’re not in the business; you don’t have experience in that field.”
Lee’s professional background is in construction, ranching and farming. His retail baptism by fire included coming up with ideas for what the new market would look like. It was built from the ground up after Shur Valu was razed.
Just as with the Shur Valu, the new market runs right up to the sidewalk in town. That alone meant there were size and layout restrictions to work around. Parking is behind the market.
Lee had praise for Rodney Rich, who works in store planning and engineering with Affiliated Foods of Amarillo, the market’s wholesaler.
“Our local architect was not well versed in grocery store design, so it was a collaboration between him and Affiliated’s design department,” Lee said. “Rodney did the equipment layout and basically all the interior layout of the store. (Affiliated Foods) was very helpful in that regard.”
“From the get-go it was a lot of just learning and conceptualizing what this operation was going to be and then trying to design for that, and get the right equipment and all that in place to do what we wanted to do,” Lee said.
Community makes the difference
On a fundamental level, what the Lees and McClanahans wanted to do was open a grocery store in Ignacio to serve the local residents.
“It’s one of those things in a small town that has been lost in a lot of communities—a good store,” Lee said. “There’s been so much of the market that’s been taken up by the big companies in adjacent communities or bigger cities that are nearby, and when that’s lost in a small town, it really hurts the people who need it, like the elderly or people who don’t have good transportation and don’t have the option to just drive for 25 or 50 miles to go to Walmart or Sam’s Club.”
Farmers Fresh Market was well received by the people of Ignacio when it opened two years ago. Lee said he and all those involved with the grocery store continue to emphasize that the market must have the community’s support.
“We try to be competitive in our pricing, but it’s difficult to be competitive always in such a low-margin business. But if people do the math, and if they account for their time and what it costs to drive 50 miles and all that, it’s really a better deal. But often people don’t do the math,” Lee said. “We need community support. That’s something we try to advocate.”
The market also strives to pay its employees as well as possible and maintain that balance between sales and labor. Farmers Fresh Market employs a total of about 40 people, with about 30 full-time equivalent staffers along with students and others who work part-time.
He refers to the (literal) family of employees in the deli—three sisters, two of their husbands and some of their children—as “a godsend.” They have been instrumental in getting a build-your-own burrito bar up and running.
“The concept of making a burrito is pretty simple, but to be able to offer that every day and a quality product, that comes down to your staff and that’s where the credit is due,” Lee said.
Another employee is Cindy Swanemyr. She’s the office manager. She also is the daughter of Bruce “Butch” and Jean McClanahan, the longtime owners and operators of Shur Valu.
“She has been a great blessing and one of those people we rely on heavily here,” Lee said.
Butch and Jean McClanahan actually met each other at the store. Butch was a butcher when Jean got a job there. They married in 1953 and bought the store in 1965.
Living up to the name
The 22,000-s.f. Farmers Fresh Market has gleaming floors, cases and equipment, as well as a bakery, a deli and décor that pays homage to farms and farmers. There’s also the Fresh Rx Pharmacy, an amenity the former grocery store did not offer. It is operated by a local independent pharmacy based out of Bayfield. In addition, Wells Liquor South, a fully stocked liquor store owned by Ezra and Brook Lee, is attached to the main shopping area of Farmers Fresh Market.
The market’s motto is “Think Local. Shop Fresh.” A local graphic artist designed the store’s logo, which features a rooster (“chickens don’t get enough credit,” Lee said) and a head of wheat.
“It is appropriate for a store called Farmers Fresh,” Lee said. “That’s the direction that we want to go, is to be a place where you can get locally produced products, and that’s going to be a process as well. We’re trying to live up to the name.”
Butch McClanahan processed a lot of his own meat and was renowned for that. Lee said the hope is to someday finish and produce beef on a farm a few miles out of town.
“That’s something that’s been lost,” he said. “We do a little bit of it now, but it’s mostly 4-H cattle.”
Farmers Fresh Market offers local produce, like peaches from Palisade, a town on the fruit-and-vegetable-rich Western Slope.
“We have a pretty good resource just north of here in the valley from Grand Junction down to Montrose,” Lee said. “It’s kind of a microclimate here, and they can raise really good peaches and sweet corn and stuff like that. We go up there and pick up locally raised produce and bring it down.”
Running the store is a continual learning process for Lee, but he is happy with the ways things are going now. Sales this year are expected to be up 12 to 14 percent over last year. Obviously, that won’t happen year after year, but he sees it as a good sign.
“We’re paying our bills, so I’m happy with that,” Lee said.