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Community Support Vital To Success Of Chris’ Food Center

Chris' Food Center

Sandstone, Minnesota is a small town of about 1,500 residents. The official count is about 2,900, but that includes 1,400 federal prisoners who don’t buy groceries, according to Craig Thorvig, who owns and operates Chris’ Food Center with his wife, Kristee.

Chris’ Food Center is the lone supermarket in town, with the only other options for limited grocery offerings being dollar and convenience stores. 

“There’s a grocery store in Hinckley, which is a town 10 miles south of us, and that’s also an independent grocery store. And then there’s an independent grocery store 25 miles to the north of us. And then, other than that, there’s a Walmart 30 miles south and a Walmart 35 miles north,” Thorvig said.

Chris’ Food Center, at 35,000 square feet, is a vital part of the Sandstone community. Thorvig grew up working at the small independent store, which his father bought in 1974. Kristee worked as a cashier there while in high school, which is where the couple met. 

After leaving for college and Craig working in real estate in Minneapolis for a few years, the Thorvigs returned to Sandstone in 2003, when his father became ill. 

“We’ve been here ever since,” he said.

The Thorvig family

Thorvig attributes the success of Chris’ Food Center to the support it receives from Sandstone and the surrounding small towns that don’t have grocery stores. He said they try to highlight and promote local and regional companies and brands.

“A lot of our displays and promotions and the fun side of the business is based around local vendors and local partners,” he said, adding they work with Minnesota Grown and NFRA. “We partner with our local vendors, and they’re very supportive. They help us coordinate those promotions.”

Minnesota Grown recognized Chris’ Food Center as its 2024 Northeast Region Retailer of the Year. The Thorvigs also were named the 2023 Outstanding Grocer of the Year by the Minnesota Grocers Association and won the AWG Excellence in Merchandising Award in 2023.

Craig Thorvig also is a member of the association’s executive committee and served as board chair from 2010-12. He chairs the MGA Foundation board.

Facing challenges

As far as challenges for the business go, Thorvig said labor is one of the biggest issues.

“I’d say the labor shortage, combined with inflation and the labor inflation has been a strong impact or a very big factor in our business today,” he said. 

“To have the same bottom line as we did 10 years ago, we have to have an additional probably five points of margin to make up for the increased expense line with utilities, with labor, with insurance, with all the below-line expenses, and that’s not even looking at our gross margin.”

He cited a recent article stating that CPGs are about 5 percent off their typical sales volume as far as promoted product versus non-promoted. 

“Small retailers oftentimes have to subsidize part of that 5 percent. The customer still expects a fair price and a good deal,” he explained. 

“Our margin has shrunk since the pandemic, and so that’s another reason we like to use regional brands rather than national brands, because those smaller companies are true partners. The big national companies say they’re partners, but really, it’s a one-way partnership, where with regional or local vendors, it’s a true partnership.”

Labor issues also have affected customer service. Thorvig said they are not able to open additional checkout lanes as often due to a lack of cashiers. A plan to install self-checkout was delayed due to a vendor issue, and has since been postponed indefinitely.

Chris Food Center

“We have the physical lanes, we just don’t have the people,” he said. “Consequently, our customers are maybe not getting the same service they got five or six years ago. As a business that’s built on service rather than necessarily price, that’s a tough pill to swallow to recognize that maybe we can’t do as good a job as we did previously. 

“At the same time, all our employees are working very hard. We ask as much as we can of them. Basically, we’re so tight on help that we just can’t reach those service levels that we had previously.”

The Thorvigs’ children, Cassidee and Tyler, are involved in the business. Both are full-time college students but come home on weekends to help. Cassidee Thorvig has been decorating cakes and cupcakes for the bakery while the store’s cake decorator has been on maternity leave.

“Our kids have been a huge, huge help the last couple of years with the labor shortage,” Thorvig said.

He said they don’t have plans for a second location but will “do some remodeling.” When the restaurants in town closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, they had planned to expand the deli. Those plans were tabled when two of the restaurants reopened.

“Part of being a small town is you have to have synergies with the other businesses … Basically, we have a thriving grocery store, we have a thriving hardware store, we have a thriving lumber yard. We have two thriving restaurants … beyond that, we’ll fill in business based on what the community needs and wants.”

Making a difference

Although Chris’ Food Center doesn’t offer online shopping, it does have an offline shopping and delivery service for seniors in the community four days a week. Three days, the store delivers in Sandstone and the other day, deliveries are made to the neighboring communities.

“It’s primarily seniors and shut-ins that we deliver to, and we don’t charge them at all,” Thorvig said. “We didn’t go to an online platform simply because this generation of people, they really like to talk to us. That’s their human contact. If you turn it online, you’re kind of defeating the purpose of what we’re doing. 

“Down the road, for the next generations, we will switch to an online platform. But for now, our seniors and shut-ins like to talk to somebody, a live human.”

Thorvig said they have been offering the free delivery service to seniors since his father bought the business in 1974.

The grocer also is involved with the school system. Kristee Thorvig conducts store tours for elementary students, and some of the store’s high school employees will don penguin or cow costumes during promotions, such as NFRA’s annual ice cream promotion.

Thorvig said many of the managers are involved in the community, whether through the local Lions Club or serving on the school board, and he volunteers as a basketball coach.

“We expect our managers to be involved in the community and, honestly, the community depends on that. I guess what I’ve seen anecdotally is people under 40 don’t tend to volunteer much unless it involves their own children. I consider that parenting rather than volunteering. But as the generation of volunteering has gotten older, there’s a gap there and we’re trying our best to fill it by encouraging our employees to participate.”

Thorvig said seeing how the community takes pride in Chris’ Food Center and supports it is “probably the biggest satisfaction we’ve gotten out of the business.” 

“And we can maybe be an inspiration or offer guidance to other businesses that want to start up in our town, in our community.”

Thorvig said while they are not always 100 percent successful at achieving their goals, “we give it our best effort to get there to provide the community what they want.”

Read more market profiles from The Shelby Report.

About the author

Treva Bennett

Senior Content Creator

After 32 years in the newspaper industry, she is enjoying her new career exploring the world of groceries at The Shelby Report.

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