Iowan, once nation’s youngest grocer, still fighting for rural

WICHITA, Kan. — If attendees at the Rural Grocery Summit pulled Bic lighters from their pockets, gave them a flick and held the flame in the air as the owner of three rural Iowa grocery stores gave his keynote address, I wouldn’t have been surprised. It was clear many attending viewed the man as part rock star and part legend.

And, for those searching for rural saviors, Nick Graham comes pretty close — even if he is reluctant to embrace the fame.

His popularity has little to do with his overall success rate, because he’d be the first to tell you that he has made mistakes. But no one can deny that Graham embodies an attribute that’s become a necessity in rural counties and small towns.

Nick Graham, you see, is resilient.

National news shows and People Magazine began telling his story in 2006. He was “America’s Youngest Grocer,” having purchased a store in his hometown of Truman, Minn. when he was just 17.

“That was about 10 years ago, and probably 100 pounds ago … but that’s OK,” Graham joked after footage of his younger self was shown to the Summit audience.

Nick Graham, who owns grocery stores and other businesses in the small Iowa communities of Rolfe, Ackley and Rockwell, gives the keynote address at the fifth Rural Grocery Summit in Wichita, Kan. on June 6, 2016.
Nick Graham, who owns grocery stores and other businesses in the small Iowa communities of Rolfe, Ackley and Rockwell, gives the keynote address at the fifth Rural Grocery Summit in Wichita, Kan. on June 6, 2016. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

He wound up purchasing three more Minnesota stores and ran a wholesale service for smaller groceries and convenience stores. After receiving an offer for the business he says he couldn’t refuse, he eventually moved to Iowa, where he’d found another rural grocery in the north-central town of Rolfe, population 568. He now operates two more in Ackley (population 1,550) and Rockwell (population 1,023), and says he is doing well for himself and the people he employs. But things weren’t always so rosy.

“I’d been in Rolfe about six months and thought it was working well,” said Graham, 27.

He purchased another grocery in southern Iowa about 100 miles away, and then bought a third about 25 miles south. About that time The Des Moines Register ran a human interest piece about him and, about two weeks later, he received a thick packet of market research from a Des Moines suburb.

“I thought if I could make it work in a town of 500, I could certainly make it work in a town of 5,000. It didn’t quite pan out that way,” he said.

“Doing business in a suburb is certainly different from doing business in Mayberry, and I was not ready for that change.”

Within six months, Graham went from owning four grocery stores to owning one, and he says he was on the verge of bankruptcy.

“I was overdrawn for two straight years. I slept on the floor of my office for six months,” he said.

Based on that experience and also because the Iowa counties he services are losing population, Graham has once again diversified his operations. “I got into catering and began catering events ranging from 20 to 2,000 people. The cash flow began to get strong again,” he said.

In Ackley, he’s opened a True Value hardware store within the grocery, and has plans to do the same in another of his stores.

He operates a state-certified meat processing and smoking facility that creates some of the specialty products sold in his stores and other retailers throughout the state.

Graham has also collaborated with eight or nine other retailers through wholesale distribution, which helps buck the trend of smaller stores needing to pay an additional surcharge when their grocery orders are below certain distribution limits.

The institutional side of his grocery business has helped too. He supplies several child care facilities and convalescent homes with groceries and supplies a few school districts with most of their food service products.

“Because of this, and due to the efforts of a phenomenal employee base, for eight straight years I’ve managed to maintain both top and bottom line sales growth and income growth. And, also for eight straight years, I’ve managed to maintain increasing customer count,” he said.

Thank to the addition of hardware, the Ackley store is undergoing at 1,500-foot expansion, and Graham was recently approached by a regional pharmacy operator about the possibility of adding telepharmacy services.

“Partially to control the neighborhood and partially to keep the business open” Graham purchased a tavern next to his grocery store in Rolfe and now leases it out to a tenant.

And, despite all the growth and expansion, Graham’s proud to say he’s had zero operating debt for the past two years.

“I’m very excited, and looking forward to the future,” says Graham, who says he doesn’t regret dropping his $10,000 savings into a rural grocery store when he was 17. “At the end of the day you can innovate, find new revenue and cut costs, but we need to collaborate as communities and even as entire states and regions to grow rural America.

“The only way Main Street Rural America is going to sustain itself is if there is cooperation among community members on growing businesses throughout all industries.”

To that end, he’d like to see more state and private investment in Iowa’s smaller towns.

“I would certainly like to see more manufacturing and economic opportunity for young people in a lot of our smaller communities because I think that would certainly bode well for my business,” he said.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on June 12, 2016. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette