While Jodi Axford never imagined she would own and run a small independent grocery store in rural Wyoming, she has found a place and a purpose there. The owner of Thrifty Foods in Wheatland moved to the small town with her then-husband and two children. He had been a store manager for Cub Foods in Minnesota, and she was a pastor.
The family was looking for a change.
After about a year, her husband contracted neuroinvasive West Nile virus and became very sick. At that point, Axford stepped in and began running the store.
“It affected his brain. Unfortunately, we had to go through a divorce at that time,” she said. “And somehow God placed this grocery store in my hands, and I’ve been running it ever since.”
The store celebrated its 95th anniversary in April. Axford said it has had a few different names and changed owners and locations over the years but has continued to serve the town of about 3,800 residents. She has been at the store for eight and a half years.
While she does not have a background in the grocery industry and it was not her passion, Axford has learned a lot over the years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had no choice but to learn how to run a grocery store, just wanting to provide for the community,” she said. “That’s where it all started, just listening to what the community wanted. And I did everything I could to provide that with our little store here.”
Wheatland has a larger chain grocery store, which also has been around for several decades, Axford said. “We’ve learned to play well together. The town needs two grocery stores.”
She said Thrifty Foods really stood out during the pandemic by continuing to provide what its customers needed. When everyone was out of yeast, Axford said she contacted local restaurants and anywhere else she could think of to find some. Eggs were one of the few items the store ran out of. But again, she was able to reach out to area restaurants and buy in bulk.
“I got creative in selling things, I guess,” she said.
During the pandemic, many local residents came back to Thrifty Foods as people from other towns went to the larger store near the interstate.
“It kind of pushed the local people more into our store to give it another chance to look at how we’ve changed and freshened things up,” Axford said.
Many of those customers stayed after the pandemic, which has helped the store prosper. Axford said any profits go back into the business.
“I have a very, very old store that has been bandaged together for decades,” she said. “Every project we do requires a lot extra than initially anticipated.”
Thrifty Foods finally got automatic doors this year, and Axford has installed new flooring and new coolers. She said the business just got its liquor license a couple of months ago. It also recently put in a new rotisserie for its deli.
The store offers hot, homemade lunches every day, posting the menu on its Facebook page “as often as we can keep on top of it.” The offering has been well received in the community.
Thrifty Foods has continued to grow since the pandemic. It now has 26 employees. At the first of the year, Axford took over the part of the building that had been leased to an accountant for 30 years.
“We’re still just busting at the seams,” she said. “We just got the liquor license, so we’re building in a remodel for that currently, and then we’ll have to buy some real estate next door and expand the next phase.”
She said the growth has been stressful because it’s happened so rapidly. “It’s just trying to have controlled growth as much as possible without holding it back.”
She enjoys providing for the community, attributing that to her background as a pastor. When a child was recently killed in a tragic accident, the store delivered groceries to the family.
“Nothing expected in return, just here’s a bunch of meat and cheese trays and veggie trays and things like that,” Axford said. “I think a lot of the community relies on us for support.”
Thrifty Foods also helps out with donations for the local fair, school, church and community events.
Axford shared that it has been a challenge being a woman in the industry. “I just keep pushing through and staying strong.”
She has found support through networking with different community organizations and being part of the Platte County Main Street program. “That’s really helped me be a part of all aspects of the community.”
Axford’s store also tries to carry as many local products as possible. A couple of times each year, it will host tasting and sampling events. Local vendors will bring their products and have an opportunity to meet their customers.
“Cheyenne Coffee Company is one of them, and they just love meeting the customers themselves and getting feedback directly from the customers on their product,” she said. “The community loves it, and the vendors love it.”
While her grocery career began under difficult circumstances, Axford has found a new purpose in Wheatland and at Thrifty Foods.
“By the grace of God every day, He keeps our doors open. We’re happy to be here.”
Read more independent store news from The Shelby Report.