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Student-run grocery store thrives in western Nebraska

Five years ago, going to the grocery store wasn’t a simple affair for the residents of Cody.

It took nearly 90 minutes for a round-trip excursion to get groceries.

Now, picking up milk and eggs or a last-minute ingredient for dinner only requires a quick trip to the Circle C Market.

The student-run grocery store opened in May 2013 with the goal of keeping the 150-person town of Cody on the map.

“I think there are a lot of small communities without grocery stores and I think that we are going to prove that small communities can support a grocery store,” said Todd Chessmore, the superintendent of Cody-Kilgore Public Schools. “But like a lot of things, it can’t be done in a traditional way.

The idea for a school-run grocery store came out of a conversation at a teachers meeting, where attendees brainstormed ideas to grow the city and the school. Cody-Kilgore teachers Tracee Ford and Stacey Adamson noted that families were often deciding between the schools in Cody and Valentine and the families chose Valentine because of the in-town grocery store.

“I laughed and said, ‘I guess we’ll have to build a grocery store,’ ” said Ford, who remembers looking at Adamson and having a lightbulb moment. “We looked at each other more seriously and I said, ‘I think we’ll have to build a grocery store.’ ”

After talking with people around town and researching some ideas, Ford and Adamson quickly got to work on the idea. They applied for grants, scouted out store locations and sought out resources who could help them with their endeavor.

It was a way to provide a much-needed service and allow students to gain business experience, Chessmore said.

“I like nontraditional educational opportunities,” he said. “I thought having a store that had such a close link to the school sounded like it would be a lot of fun and a great educational opportunity for our students.”

But taking the idea and making it a reality was where the real challenge began.

There were zoning restrictions, new ideas and different opinions swirling around the topic of a local grocery store. Some people were on board, others were a bit skeptical of a student-run store, Chessmore said.

Would it be more expensive? Would it carry all the necessary items? Would it even work?

“It was not a static idea,” Chessmore said. “It wasn’t like building a building — that’s easy. It was a lot messier.”

Patience was a key element during the five years it took to plan, construct and eventually open the store, Ford said.

But slowly, the mess started to make sense. The store was built, the shelves were stocked, the students were assigned jobs and it became the Circle C Market.

Margaret Rosfeld has worked to bring the grocery store to life since she was an eighth grader, and this fall she’ll be a junior in high school.

Like many students, Rosfeld helped build the school and remembers the exact places where she helped paint and put the store together.

Now the 16-year-old is the store’s bookkeeper and works three days a week.

“Our kids are doing an outstanding job, they really are,” Chessmore said. “It’s not a Walmart, but we have about 1,500 items on the shelf.”

He said the store is meant to be as much of a full-service grocery store as possible, and the variety of items on the shelves has shocked many new customers. While stocking time-sensitive items like milk and meat is often difficult to estimate, Chessmore said that’s part of the adjustment when you open a new store.

Each challenge serves as a teaching moment for both Chessmore and his students.

“It’s a learning laboratory that we can go out and we have the opportunity to do that experimenting,” he said.

Rosfeld said she’s developed her people skills and learned how to manage the store’s finances via QuickBooks. On the days she works, her routine consists of keeping the shelves stocked, checking out customers and paying the bills to keep the store running.

“I think the best part is seeing the growth in the kids and the store … every day we learn something new as the kids do too,” Ford said. “They see the importance of math (and other subjects) more than just in the classroom.”

Working at the store is more than just a job, Rosfeld said. It’s also her way to invest in her town and share the story of the Circle C Market.

She and other students often give presentations about the Circle C Market to business people to spread the word about their efforts.

“You don’t have to own a business to be an entrepreneur. You have to be willing to put yourself out there and meet people,” Rosfeld said. “This area is a really entrepreneurial area because everyone’s ranch is their own business … there’s locally owned livestock and oil supplies and that’s part of what makes up our community.”

While Chessmore said many of the students who have a hand in the Circle C Market don’t necessarily have aspirations directly related to entrepreneurship, the skills students acquire at the store are beneficial for a number of reasons.

“We’re trying to create a culture and give kids an outlet,” Chessmore said. “It has given them an avenue, a risk-free opportunity to try their hand at a small business.”

For Rosfeld, being an employee at the grocery store has provided her with more than a job. It’s given her a chance to be a part of her community, and that was the original goal of the store when it opened last year.

“The grocery store actually means something,” Rosfeld said. “It’s doing something for the community versus just bussing tables.”

To watch a video about the Circle C Market click here.