Burton, Kansas, where the last food shop closed 20 years ago. Photograph: Kacy Meinecke for the Guardian
Days after Nech was driven out of business in Haven, Buhler’s council voted unanimously to reject Dollar General. The company’s developer was not pleased. “I wasn’t terribly impressed. They stormed out. They were pretty hot about it,” said Friesen.
In Haven, the former mayor Mike Alfers conceded that the promised financial advantage of Dollar General has largely been lost with the closure of the Foodliner. It is now a fitness centre, with the old grocery store sign still hanging outside. Sales tax revenue for the town rose by more than $60,000 between the years before and after the Dollar General opened. But the Foodliner alone was collecting around $75,000 a year in sales tax which is now gone.
On top of that, Nech paid an annual electricity bill of $37,000, which the city made money on, plus there was the break the council gave Dollar General on its utility bills. It remains to be seen how much business will transfer from the defunct grocery store to the Dollar General but the end result is the Haven’s main street is finding it even more of a struggle to survive with the diminished flow of people to pick up groceries.
For all that, while Alfers feels sympathy for Nech, he said the Dollar General is the future. “The Model-T put horses out of business. It’s hard to protect existing businesses,” he said. “I would still vote for Dollar General. If one state didn’t accept the Model-T it wouldn’t have changed the outcome. I think Buhler voted their sentiment. The question is, in five years will they have a Dollar General or something similar?”
The owner of Buhler’s grocery store, JC Keith, is acutely aware that seeing off Dollar General is not the only challenge. With decent paying jobs increasingly scarce in rural Kansas, a good part of the population of Buhler and Haven work in large towns with ready access to a range of rivals from Walmart to farmers markets. It’s easier for residents of what have become bedroom communities to stop at a major store on the way home from work and only use the local grocery shop for last-minute supplies such as milk.
“A majority of people in Buhler that work, work somewhere else,” said Keith, who is also a long-distance truck driver. “Chances are they drive right by some chain store on their way home.”
The threat from Dollar General prompted Keith to evaluate his way of doing business. He was already in the process of building a larger shop just down the road from the existing one, but now it will incorporate hot foods such as chicken and a salad bar. It will also open later.
For all his support for building the Dollar General in Haven, Alfers rarely shops there and regrets the loss of the Foodliner. “It makes a lot of difference to me. I shopped a lot at Foodliner,” he said. “Now I have a hard time time shopping at Dollar General. I like to cook. I like food items and spices you can’t get at Dollar General. I’m less loyal to any one store these days.”
Haven’s residents now have to travel out of town to find fresh food, although many do that for work in any case. The more immediate impact has been on those who are less mobile, like the elderly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculates that about a quarter of the population is unable to buy healthy food nearby. Dollar Generals are frequently to be found in those areas and some studies have made a direct link between the rise of dollar stores and unhealthy eating. But it is not that straightforward. Megan Rinehart worked at Nech’s Foodliner for six years.
“This isn’t a rich town. A lot of our customers bought not healthy stuff. They leaned towards what was fast and cheap. We had a pretty good selection of fresh produce. It was a matter of if they could afford it,” she said.
An agriculture department study found that many of those on low income and reliant on food stamps were more likely to decide where to shop based on price than where the nearest store is. They drive past a grocery store to a Dollar General.
Alfers thinks Buhler will struggle to stave off the cut-price chain store because it is the future. Doug Nech is not so sure. He owned the Foodliner alongside a job travelling a dozen states as a church pew cushion salesman. Nech has seen the impact across the midwest of the store that put his own out of business. He views Dollar General as a juggernaut but that does not mean he thinks it’s invincible.
“Dollar General is building just as fast as it can. Nebraska. The Dakotas. You see it,” he said. “But somewhere down the line, as these small towns dry up, business for Dollar General is going to dry up just like it does for a grocery store. If there’s nobody new coming to town and your older population is dying off and they’re not getting replaced very quickly, who are they going to sell to?”