Rural Missouri Magazine

The new old store
Steve and Donna Carl's old-time store
specializes in Missouri products

by Jim McCarty

Ask residents of Miller what they think of the new store in town and you'll hear words not normally associated with grocers. "This was an answer to a prayer," says Cindy Gullick, who frequents the tiny store with her baby, Bethany, in her arms.

"Our church did a survey to see what was needed in this community. One of the biggest needs was a store in town. The closest one is in Mount Vernon. A lot of people end up going all the way to Springfield."

It would be easy to miss the store Steve and Donna Carl opened last August in this southwest Missouri town. It occupies a building in the town's sleepy downtown. Walk in and you might not recognize it for what it is — unless you grew up in the 1940s when grocery stores were different.

Steve Carl weighs produce in the little store he and his wife, Donna, opened in Miller. The owners go out of their way to find Missouri products to offer their customers.

"It's little, but we've got the products," says Steve, a member of Ozark Electric Cooperative. "We carry right at 400 products. And 75.9 percent are Missouri products."

Steve says his goal in opening Carl's Store was to serve the community. And this philosophy is carried to extremes few grocers would be willing to take.

"I think you should support the local person," Steve says. "I try to buy from the mom-and-pop operation more than anything. I will buy locally as long as it's financially feasible."

Take one look at Steve's well-stocked shelves and his dedication to supporting Missouri businesses becomes apparent. His milk comes from Martin Dairy in Humansville, a business started to add value to farm products. "The milk that is delivered on Saturday was bottled Friday," Steve says. "Chances are it was in the cow when I ordered it."

He sells Ozark Country barbeque sauce made in Dunnegan. His jelly is made in Branson. He sells bread made by the Amish in Mount Vernon. You can get grape juice made in St. James, cheese from Springfield, salad dressing from Carthage, cereal from Joplin, lunch meat from New Franklin and root beer from St. Louis.

Pickles were a real problem for him. "The smallest size I could get was 5 gallons," he says. Eventually he stumbled on Dinah's Kitchen pickles from Ozark, reportedly the only pickle Gov. Bob Holden will eat.

Finding Missouri-made products is no easy task, but it's one Steve believes is worthwhile. He starts with the AgriMissouri Guide published by the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

If Steve can't find a Missouri product to sell he will go to border states. For example, his canned vegetables are made in Siloam Springs, Ark. He picked them because most of the contents are grown in southwest Missouri.

He gave up trying to find a reliable Missouri supplier of potato chips and settled for Frito-Lay brands, made in Kansas but topped with ingrediants from Dairy Farmers of America based in Springfield.

Only if he strikes out in border states will Steve stock a national brand. That doesn't happen often. One concession was to stock Pepsi. "That's for my wife, who's a Pepsi-holic," Steve says.

His fresh produce is about as local as it can get. While Steve raises eggs, he also buys them from Miller residents. "We've got one boy who sells eggs and we keep a tally on him. When he finds a new CD or something that he wants he comes in and says it's time to get paid."

When local gardens are in season Steve buys produce from his neighbors. The barter system is alive and well in Miller. Those who want to swap can trade dollar for dollar for what Steve has on his shelves.

Steve carries the basket so Cindy Gullick can attend to her baby while shopping.

Steve has a system for adding new products. "People come in and say, 'I want' and we mark it down or make a mental note of it. The next person who asks for the same item we get three or four. If that goes over we buy it by the case." In this manner he figures the inventory of the little store has quadrupled since it opened.

Carl's Store began as an outlet for the family farm. But it wasn't long before the concept turned into something of a crusade to bring back the old ways of doing business. "When someone walks in the doors of a big store they could care less if the customer is in there or not. If they close around 9 the doors are locked before it's time. People here know that if the light is on they can come on in."

Steve's role as storekeeper goes far beyond stocking shelves. Often people come in with the eternal question: "What's for dinner?" Steve dispenses as much advice as he does goods.

Others need products Steve doesn't sell, so he makes the trip next door to the hardware store and has the order ready for pickup. If a mother has her hands full with a new baby Steve carries the groceries to the car.

And if he can do anything to help make Miller a better place to live in — like accepting food stamps — he'll do it. "We do that because there is a need in this community. We don't have million dollar incomes in this town."

The little store isn't going to make Steve a millionaire either, but it is earning its keep. Support from the town has been good, with one woman telling Steve she has spent just $30 on groceries away from his store.

"That's what's nice," Steve says. "You couldn't ask for nicer people. This community really pulls together."

For more information about Carl's Store call (417) 452-3600.


Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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