COVID-19 Shelby Exclusives West

Market Profile: State Was Not Spared Effects Of Pandemic As Everything Has Changed

Adam Clarke
Adam Clarke, owner of Valley Foods.

At Texas Trail Market In Pine Bluffs, personal touch keeps customers loyal 

by John McCurry, contributing writer

Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, a town with about 1,200 residents, is a farming community tucked in the Southeast corner of the state, just a few miles from the borders of both Nebraska and Colorado. 

Perhaps the biggest local tourist attraction is the Texas Trail Museum, which commemorates a cattle trail that brought tens of thousands of steers into the region during the second half of the 19th century.Clarke

Pine Bluffs’ lone grocery derives its name from the famous trail. Formed as the Farmers’ Cooperative in 1926, the store changed its name to Texas Trail Market in 1948. It moved to its current 9,000-square-foot building in the early 1960s. 

The small store has a loyal following, attracting customers from the immediate area, as well as from its neighboring states. With just three checkout stands and 11 employees, Texas Trail Market is perhaps the definition of a small independent grocery. 

Dixie Bomberger, recently promoted to manager, has been with the store for more than 20 years. 

“We have a good group of employees, and we have been very lucky through the whole [COVID-19] pandemic that everyone has stayed healthy,” she said.

The Texas Trail Market is known for supporting local schools and community events. Fresh meat, which the store cuts, is featured. A local florist opened a shop inside the store last year, providing a boost. The market sources local products when possible, including tomatoes from a local farmer during the summer. 

Obviously, this year has changed everything.

“During the pandemic, we have tried to concentrate on disinfecting the store, for the safety of our employees and our customers,” Bomberger said. “It was hard to get certain products, such as Kleenex, toilet paper, paper towels and sanitizing wipes. We are still having trouble getting some of those items. Some of the toilet paper brands, for example, are still hard to get, but people have learned to adjust. And some people are stocked up pretty well.”

The personal touch offered by Texas Trail Market keeps customers loyal. The store regularly fills special request for products. It sources its supplies from the Nebraska Division of Associated Wholesale Grocers, about eight hours away in Norfolk, Nebraska. 

The market remains busier than normal, but traffic is tapering off. New customers came from outside of Pine Bluffs during the pandemic and continue to do so. These include shoppers who didn’t want to travel to Cheyenne, the nearest sizeable city, about 45 miles to the west. That has been a boost. 

Clarke“We have been offering curbside pickup and delivery for the elderly and those who did not want to go out, and we are still doing that,” she said. “We do have some clientele that come over from Nebraska and some that come up from Colorado – I-80 runs right through here. We serve a big area. We even have some who come from Cheyenne, because they like shopping a smaller, less crowded store.”

At one point early in the pandemic when shortages were bad, the market was only allowed to order a limited number of cases of some items because the warehouse did not have enough to go around, according to Bomberger. 

“That was the hard part, trying to place your order and figure out what we could and could not get,” she said. “I think the supply chain will settle down by the end of the year. We are starting to get more of the things we could not get before, like soups and dry goods are starting to replenish. We are hopeful that we will not have another scare.”

Tourism in Saratoga area gave Valley Foods a summer boost

Saratoga, Wyoming, a town of about 1,700, situated near the Snowy Range and Sierra Madre Mountains, draws a lot of tourists during the summer. That was still the case this year, even in the middle of a pandemic. 

The tourists come for hiking and fishing in the summer and hunting in the fall. Sometimes they stop in at the town’s lone grocery store, Valley Foods and Liquor, which is good news for its owner, Adam Clarke. 

Rawlins, about 40 miles away, is the nearest sizeable town with a grocery store. Laramie, home to the University of Wyoming, is 70 miles to the southeast. 

Valley Foods is known for its meat department, with butchers on staff. No pre-packed meat is sold, and the store makes its own sausage and brats. A full-service store with a deli, it employs 22. A liquor store next door is part of the operation. 

“We have one of the better liquor stores in the county,” Clarke said.  “We are a small town store trying our best to provide good, friendly service. We have built relationships with our community. We have many longtime loyal customers.”

Clarke said he has had to think outside the box during the pandemic, in terms of getting the right products. Finding substitutions became necessary.

“We used to be able to operate a bit on autopilot with placing orders, but now a lot of those pallets are not there anymore,” he said. “We were limited by the warehouse to a certain case count. 

“You have to think about what is there and how you are going to get what people need. For example, we ordered directly from Pepsi to get Gatorade and sodas and bottled water, instead of trying to get them from the warehouse. And that also helped us save space on the truck for other things.”

There were shortages, from bread to beer, all summer long. Produce is one of the few things that has stayed constant, Clarke said. Soda companies are not making all of their SKUs now.

“Beer has been a strange thing,” he added. “It seems to go back and forth as to whether you can get cans or bottles. Everything is virtual now, and you can no longer sit and talk to your [sales] representative.”

ClarkeClarke expects the rest of 2020 will continue to see shortage of cleaning products. Most food items are available, including staples. Some varieties of beans are hard to find and seasonal candies may be in short supply. While the big surge of stocking up has subsided, customers are still buying a lot and continuing to eat at home more.

“I was just able to order a whole pallet of toilet paper for the first time in a long time, and on deal,” Clarke said. “It may be tight through the holidays, but I can see things getting back to normal by February or so. 

“We are in the dark a bit about what is happening. When are we going to find 409 cleaner on the shelf again?”

Tourism was up during the summer, which Clarke attributed to people taking mini-vacations. Ranches are a big draw.

“Brush Creek Ranch is near us, and there are other tourist ranches that do outfitting, guiding, fishing, hunting,” he said. “But this summer, camping was the big thing in the nearby mountains. Colorado is a half hour from us, and a lot of people from [there] come north into Wyoming. I think a lot of people did domestic vacations, just going somewhere they could drive to, instead of flying somewhere like to the coasts.”

Clarke is a fourth generation grocer who grew up in Nebraska. He has run Valley Foods for five years. Without doubt, navigating the pandemic has been the biggest challenge of his career.

“People most wanted anything fresh, such as meat and produce,” he said.  “People started baking their own bread again, and making items from scratch. Yeast has been a struggle to keep stocked, and I thought it would die out, but it seems to keep going strong. 

“Who would have thought people would want to buy so many dried beans? Families are taking their time, and not so much looking for fast and efficient, and making good meals from scratch.”

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