CASPER — Customers who wander up to the cheese case will find store owner Nancy Wayte pulling out the wheels for an impromptu cheese tasting. “If you like blue cheese, you’ve got to try Roaring ‘40s from Tasmania. It’s my favorite. … I melt this sage-infused cheddar onto scrambled eggs so my grandkids can have green eggs and ham.”
The customers check out with Nancy’s husband, Bill Wayte, who tells them about his most recent trip to Las Vegas while employee Johnie Richman bags the groceries and gets the door. On Tuesdays, the pace at Grant Street Grocery in Casper is less leisurely. Dozens of customers who take part in the Colorado-based Grant Farms food-share program rush in to pick up apples, cider, beets, giant winter squash, eggs, mushrooms and cherry wine.
I have been working off and on at Grant Street Grocery for three years. I’ve done a bit of everything, but most recently I’m there to help Johnie deliver groceries. I work for food — partly because I want to help support the store I love, but also because the people at Grant Street have become my family. I help them out and they feed me, just like mom and pop.
There used to be lots of neighborhood grocery stores in Casper. According to the Polk City Directories for Casper and Natrona County, Casper had 72 grocers in 1924, 99 in 1925 and 70 in 1928. Grant Street Grocery is the only one left. In 2008, Grant Street Grocery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But the Waytes struggle to keep the doors open. Although the consumer-supported agriculture movement is gaining momentum and bolstering many neighborhood groceries, Grant Street Grocery may not have enough local support to stay in business.
“We bought this store in 2004 and have never taken a salary, but our family and friends eat well,” Nancy said. “We just hope to keep the doors open.”
Americans are becoming more aware of so-called “smart growth” concepts like environmentally sensitive land development that minimizes dependence on transportation and makes infrastructure investments more efficient. This has helped the neighborhood grocery come back in style, and the 91–year-old Grant Street Grocery may be a model for the smart-growth philosophy often discussed in Casper.
Children who can barely open the door come in to buy milk or bread for their parents. The Waytes greet the children by name and write down the total on the family’s charge account.
Groceries like milk and bread make up very little of the store’s business but Nancy shakes her head at the idea of discontinuing grocery items.
“When people go to the big stores, they will get a hundred different choices of, say, a toothbrush. Here, you can pick up the blue one or the red one. But we feel like we have to keep these items in stock so we don’t ruin the integrity of the neighborhood store,” Nancy said.
The Waytes feel like they do have to do something to compete with the hundred-toothbrushes stores.
“I sell a gallon of milk here for $4.99,” Bill said. “But I have to buy it for $4.29. I don’t make much profit selling milk. But the big stores like Safeway and Albertsons take a huge loss on milk. They sell it for much less than they buy it for in order to get people to shop there. We can’t do that.”
The Waytes have had to get people into their store in other ways. Earlier this year, they partnered with Grant Family Farms in Fort Collins, Colo., to provide Casper residents with fresh, organically grown food. Grant Family Farms is an example of community-supported agriculture (CSA), an arrangement that provides farmers a sure market for their labor. In return, the community members receive a share of the harvest. Participants in Casper come to Grant Street Grocery once a week to pick up fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, fresh flowers and herbs.
Grant Family Farms contacted the Waytes, at the beginning of 2010, seeking a drop-off site in Casper. Nancy and Bill said they were happy to oblige. They do not profit from this arrangement, but merely provide a place for Grant Family Farms and its customers to do business with each other. Grant Family Farms operates its own farm store in Cheyenne, which serves around 300 participants. They were hoping for the same success in Casper, which currently has 100 participants.
“People seem to love it and we hope even more people will participate next year,” Bill said. “Although I’m not sure we have room for 300 boxes of food in here.”
Grant Farms is also happy with the arrangement. Michael Moss does marketing, sales, delivery and farm work for Grant Farms. He said he is excited to work with Casper, an area that he considers a “food desert.” He drives the food orders up from Fort Collins every Tuesday.
“It is important to support local food in Colorado, but also where it is needed. I believe in Grant Farms’ mission; I’m passionate about getting local, organic food to those who needed it,” Moss said.
Frank Moran, who just came back from eating at the Barolo Grill in Denver — a restaurant that buys vegetables from Grant Family Farms — is here to pick up his order of fruit and eggs. Moran said he believes in community-sustained agriculture and even tried to use local foods in his Domino’s Pizza franchise.
“It didn’t work for too long because the locally grown food couldn’t meet the rules and regulations of Domino’s,” Moran said.
Even though he only ordered a half-share of fruit and eggs, Moran gets many of the Grant Farms vegetables because friends share with him. A majority of customers share with each other; many because they say they could never eat everything they receive. There is even a “share” box where people can leave an item or take an item.
This sharing helps create a sense of community that is important to customers like Jess Ryan, yoga teacher and co-founder of Healthy Life Studios in Casper.
“I come to this store to see my community and my friends. I love this program because I believe in being invested in the place you live, because when people are invested, they care,” Ryan said.
Ryan grew up in Ohio, where local produce and farmers markets abound. She said the produce from Grant Farms has made her family more creative and healthy in their cooking.
Linda Nix, a Grant Street neighbor, said she has also become more creative in her cooking and is glad to eat foods that are in season.
“Why should I eat a pineapple in winter? I’ve long been interested in CSA and seasonal eating, and Grant Farms has given me an avenue for conscious eating. Bill and Nancy have done our community a great service by working with Grant Farms,” Nix said.
THE NEIGHBORLY TOUCH
As you walk up to the store, a life-size John Wayne cutout stares out the window at you. The butcher’s dog, Samuel H. Bone (Sammy Ham Bone) greets you, hoping he can come in, too. The front door is covered with fliers, mostly made by the owners’ grandchildren, letting you know about their latest deals.
Most Grant Street Grocery customers are regulars. They know the routine; Sammy can’t come in, but there are treats for him at the counter. They talk to Johnie about his sports teams. They ask Kanyon Gaskins, the butcher, what’s good today. They come for specialty items: gourmet meats, cheeses, and chocolate.
Bill and Nancy sell the highest quality meat they can find and they import cheese from around the world: Jamaican jerk, Spanish manchego, Bavarian mushroom double-cream, Guinness-infused cheddar from Ireland and smoked gouda with bacon from New York.
The Waytes also contribute to their neighborhood and community in more direct ways. They donate to nonprofits as well as individuals who are struggling financially. They organize block parties, have cheese and wine tastings and deliver groceries for those who really need the service. For a $3 fee, they deliver to elderly customers, group homes and housebound customers. Johnie, the deliver boy, will even put the groceries away. Sometimes his delivery service includes opening lids, filling ice trays and fetching the newspaper that was thrown under the porch.
Johnie began working at Grant Street Grocery five years ago after graduating from Natrona County High School’s special-education program.
“When he first came to us, he just had a blank stare and didn’t do much. Now, he has learned pricing, shelving. He anticipates what we need, he speaks to customers, he has humor, and he is proud to be here and be a part of the store. He has really blossomed,” Nancy said.
But, all their efforts may not be enough to keep the store’s doors open. Small, locally-owned stores often have higher inventory and per-customer operating costs, and face intense competitive pressures from large, corporate chain stores.
In a few years Bill and Nancy will be in their 70s. Last year, Bill had a heart-attack and six bypasses. The couple has great visions of what Grant Street Grocery could become, if only they had the energy and money to do it.
“We think about selling this place all the time; finding someone young who wanted to take this place to the next level. But, for now, I guess we’ll just have to keep it going. Besides, if we sold it, what would happen to Johnie?” Nancy said.