In the shrinking business of independent grocers, Maupin Market thrives
By Drew Myron
Maupin Market is an endangered species.
Across the nation, rural independent grocery stores are struggling to stay alive. As the only full-service grocery store for 40 miles, the small shop is a critical link to fresh food and a strong community.
Independent grocers accounted for 11 percent of all U.S. grocery sales in 2015. But between 2005 and 2015, the number of independent stores dropped by 41 percent, according to the U.S. Economic Research Service. As with the family farm, small mom and pop stores such as Maupin Market are fewer and far between.
Boasting full shelves and happy shoppers, Maupin Market is very much alive thanks to the tenacity of owners Allison and Randy Bechtol, who came to Maupin in midlife and reinvented themselves as small-town grocers.
In 2010, Randy and Allison left their health care careers in Portland to live year-round in what had been their weekend getaway. The couple spent months renovating the nearly 100-year- old building in the center of town, carefully uncovering its mercantile history and enhancing the inherent charm.
Faced with the task of learning a new industry, they connected with other small grocers in Government Camp and Stevenson to gather support and advice.
“We jumped in with both feet,” Allison says.
Today, Maupin Market stands as a blend of old-fashioned character and modern freshness.
Eight years after leaving Portland, the couple is still thrilled.
“Instead of the stress and strain of budgets and bottom lines, now it’s, ‘How are the bananas going to look this week?’” Randy says with a laugh.
“I like the slower pace here,” she says. “It feels more fulfilling.”
A List of Challenges
Once a timber town, Maupin is now a full-fledged tourist destination, attracting nearly 100,000 visitors annually to a town of just 400 full-time residents.
This seasonal nature creates challenges, and the trick is to balance fluctuating needs. Success lies in volume, and that can be a stumble for small shops that can’t sell, store or afford to buy large volumes of products. The result is often higher prices for both store owner and shopper. To address the dilemma, Maupin Market offers incentives, such as a 5 percent discount to locals.
Rural areas also see less frequent deliveries. While urban areas typically have two or three deliveries in a week, the food comes just once weekly in Maupin.
“It’s a challenge to keep things fresh,” Randy says.
Some items may cost more than in the city stores, but it’s not because the owners are marking up and making bank.
“The profit margin is tight,” says Randy, typically between 2 to 5 percent of sales.
To stay relevant, Maupin Market stands apart by serving many needs. The shop is equal parts grocery store, liquor store and deli. In the summer, when tourists flock to the Deschutes River to fish and raft, business booms. Dozens of hoagies are sold each day, along with cold sandwiches, breakfast burritos, fresh- baked pastries and more.
Allison and Randy have deliberately worked to create business and community success, and a trio of locals gathering to gab proves that a successful small grocery is a place that fills many needs: food, of course, but also a sense of place and belonging.
“It’s a nice clean store and they’re always friendly,” says Roger Harwood, who joins his friends every morning for coffee and conversation in the market’s seating area brightened with local artwork.
“They treat us right,” Jim Turner says.
“And it’s better than Facebook,” Clint Steen adds.
As business leaders, the Bechtols regularly contribute goods, time and money to local groups and causes. They are also active volunteers. Allison is president of the Chamber of Commerce, and Randy has served several years on city council.
From special orders to SNAP payments, toddlers to coffee klatches, the market strives to serve a wide range of needs. Three days a week, the market provides meals for Head Start students. Nearly every day, older students from the school down the street wander in to shop and talk.
Why the Market Matters
Money spent at a local, independently owned grocery store cycles through the local economy and helps sustain small communities. Along with feeding people, small markets are a source of local taxes, boost area amenities and provide jobs. With a staff of 12 to 15, depending on the season, Maupin Market is one of the town’s largest employers.
“Rural grocery stores have long been a key contributor to the vitality of their communities,” notes Sharon Thornberry, rural communities liaison for Columbia Gorge Food Bank. “They are not only the source of fresh and healthy food, but a central connection in so many ways. The loss of these stores is often the final blow in the struggle for survival of a small town. It is essential that communities actively support and appreciate their local grocer if they want to continue to have access to food where they live.”
A thriving grocery store is an indicator of community vitality.
“It’s hard to picture a town not having a store,” Allison says. “We’re part of keeping the town sustainable. I can’t imagine living here if there wasn’t a grocery store.”
Maupin Market is open daily at 507 Deschutes Ave., Maupin, OR 97037. Go to www.maupinmarket.com or call (541) 395-2888.