Teenage Grocer Inspires Community

Incredible Kids, On the Road, People
on January 6, 2008
Ken Klotzbach

When 17-year-old Nick Graham bought and reopened the only grocery store in Truman, Minn. (pop. 1,259), 16 months ago, he wanted townsfolk to have easy access to biscuits, birdseed, pork chops and pickles.

But it turns out that his store’s most precious commodity can’t be found on a grocery shelf: hope for a struggling town.

“It’s good to see something happening again on Main Street,” says Tom Dodge, 50, as he pushes his shopping cart toward the checkout at the Main Street Market. “There’s actually a line on Saturdays. Nick is truly a godsend to this community.”

Graham—the youngest grocer in America—bought the store in October 2006 during his senior year at Truman High School. “I thought it could be a community service and a profitable enterprise,” he says. “It was a buyer’s market and I pretty much got to name my price.”

The teen, whose father died in a snowmobile accident when he was 4, was born in Truman and lived there until age 7, when his mother remarried and they moved to Iowa. Two years ago, Graham returned to the hometown he loves, to live with his grandmother, Dorothy Graham. Though the market remained open, its stock had dwindled and residents were leaving town to buy groceries.

“We needed this store really bad,” says City Clerk Monte Rohman. The nearest supermarket is in Fairmont (pop. 10,889) 14 miles away, a hardship for older residents who don’t drive and an inconvenience for anyone in need of a can of coffee or a sack of flour.

Rohman is a member of the Truman Development Corp., the community investment group that Graham approached for a $22,000 loan to buy the store building and fixtures. After a single meeting, the group’s 25 members unanimously approved the loan. Since the teen wasn’t old enough to legally buy property, the group leased him the building until he turned 18 last February.

“The arrangement was unique because Nick is unique,” Rohman says. “Nick had done all of his homework. He was very professional and mature.”

Not only did the group fund Graham’s business venture, they also showed up at the store to help clean and stock shelves, as did dozens of other residents.

“People would walk in and mop the floor,” says Graham, who is amazed by the outpouring of support. Graham bought the inventory for the store with $10,000 that he had earned from shingling roofs and working on his uncle’s turkey farm. In November 2006, he held a grand opening and 400 residents showed up to welcome their new town grocer—and to load up their shopping carts.

The little store that could
Townspeople keep returning to the Main Street Market, where the shelves, produce bins and freezers are lined with fresh fruits and vegetables, meat sliced daily by Graham, and a wide selection of merchandise, including detergent, diapers, notebooks, canning jars and a carpet shampooer for rent.

Sheila Breitbarth, who manages the Truman Cafe next door, pops in several times a day to pick up supplies. “I run a tab, and at the end of the month pay it off,” she says.

Accommodating customers gives Graham’s small store an edge over the grocery giants. He and his one full-time clerk, Amy Werner, insist on carrying every sack to customers’ cars. On Wednesdays, Graham delivers orders for free to residents at the Lutheran Retirement Home and puts their groceries away if needed. And while he may be young, his friendliness and concern for his neighbors remind residents of an old-fashioned shopkeeper.

“What I like about Nick is he calls everybody by their name and to me that says a lot about a person,” says Ramona Teig, 70. While she’s browsing for a greeting card, Graham unloads boxes of produce.

“Mona,” he says, “have you ever tasted a Pink Lady apple?” Graham takes his pocketknife and slices her a sample.

Teig is awed by Graham’s enthusiasm and drive. “One day he said, ‘Mona, what do you think if we put in a fitness center in the old post office? He’s looking for a pharmacist for the town. He’s always looking for another enterprise.”

Another regular customer, Bob Winter, 62, says the store was a blessing when 2 feet of snow buried the town. “It was too dangerous to send out the snowplows,” Winter says. The Main Street Market opened every day to serve customers.

“What’s really impressed me about Nick from the word go is his air of confidence,” Winter adds. “He had checked this store out and knew it would work. He’s done this town a lot of good.”

Serving other small-town groceries
Business at the Truman store has been so brisk, in fact, that Graham has paid off his $22,000 loan, and last September bought a second store, Armstrong Foods in Armstrong, Iowa (pop. 979), 35 miles south of Truman.

“It was very reasonably priced. It was pretty low-risk and I couldn’t say no,” Graham says about his latest venture.

Furthermore, the enterprising teen bought a 1987 refrigerated truck and twice a week delivers orders to his Truman store and Jamboree Foods in nearby Sherburn (pop. 1,083). Graham hopes to deliver groceries to other small-town markets in the area.

“One small store like mine couldn’t think about buying a pallet of anything,” Graham says. A pallet might contain 60 cases. He and Tom Poirot, the owner of Jamboree Foods, split large orders and get a better deal.

“We make a good combination,” says Poirot, 60, who’s owned the Jamboree for 34 years. “Nick likes to jump in and go and I’m more conservative. There are a lot of pitfalls that he doesn’t think about. I tell him my opinion and he tells me his. He’s his own man.”

On delivery days, Graham hits the road by 5:30 a.m. A normal workweek is 90 or 100 hours, but he thrives on long days and hard work.

“I enjoy what I do,” Graham says. “Rural America is an underserved market. The challenges are harder, but you’re overlooked by the competition, too.”

Dorothy Graham, 73, says her grandson has always worked hard. “He’d rather work than go out and socialize,” she says. “I’m really proud of him.”

Other people in Truman are proud of Graham and their resurrected Main Street Market. “A lot of older retired people depend on that store,” says Lois Sackett, 82. “It helps bolster this town. We have something we really needed.”