On Nov. 6, The New York Times carried a story about the grim prospects for small communities across the United States that have to survive without a real grocery store. The issue resonates for many people in the North Country.
The truth is, and has always been, that the grocery business is a very tricky one. The profit margin is not great, meaning that the outlets have to be run with a tight fist and a sharp eye.
This is true in big communities and small. In big communities with more than one store, competition can be lethal; in small ones, with only one store, shopper resources are often limited.
The Times article focused particularly on rural areas where fresh food is too often not available, and, if it is, is too expensive. There simply are not enough shoppers able or willing to pay the higher prices that are required to stock a market with fresh food, preferably locally produced.
The reason that this problem sounds so familiar to us in the North Country is our still-clear remembrances of the Grand Union. For decades, Grand Union was the only food market in many villages and hamlets in our region.
Grand Union dates back to the 19th Century, but it really gained solid footing in this region in the 1950s.
Grand Union, at its peak, had six large warehouses serving its mostly eastern U.S. stores. This region’s warehouse was in Waterford, north of Troy.
Stores were bustling in AuSable Forks, Champlain, Elizabethtown, Lake Placid, North Creek, Saranac Lake (two stores), Jay, Keeseville, Willsboro, Rouses Point, Port Henry, Schroon Lake and, of course, Plattsburgh (four stores).
It appeared to be a thriving enterprise, but, gradually, revenues couldn’t keep up with expenses. Grand Union filed for bankruptcy three times, was sold several times and, by 2012, had disappeared.
Drive through Keeseville or Willsboro, for example, and the empty buildings on the main street remind residents of a time when it was easy to drop in for whatever was needed for the week’s groceries.
Some communities have seen replacements. Others have not.
Port Henry is perhaps the most recent community to lose a grocery store as Mac's Market closed up shop Labor Day weekend.
Fortunately for most residents in this region, communities with grocery stores are still within reach. Plattsburgh, for example, has quite a few outlets where groceries, including fresh foods, are available. And Plattsburgh is within a relatively easy drive of most of the North Country.
As the Times points out, some small communities around the nation are very remote, and some have tried and continue to try to either lure grocers in with attractive deals or raise their own funds to establish a locally owned and supplied outlet.
Mostly, though, local, rural lives involve long regular trips to acquire groceries. Keeseville, Willsboro and other communities in our region can relate.
To us in the North Country, good food is not that much of an issue. That's one of the many things for which we can be grateful.