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Rural Athol gets its own market

Sisters-in-law Cindy Peterson, left, and Linda Peterson opened the Little Town Market in Athol, Idaho.
Sisters-in-law Cindy Peterson, left, and Linda Peterson opened the Little Town Market in Athol, Idaho. "We just really needed a store," Cindy Peterson said Thursday. (Photos by Kathy Plonka/ / The Spokesman-Review)

ATHOL, Idaho – For years, rumors of a grocery store tantalized Cindy Peterson.

The perks of living on the outskirts of Athol, Idaho, included splendid mountain views and backyard wildlife. The drawback was the drive for groceries.

“You’d run out of milk just before dinner,” Peterson said. “And if you needed an onion, it was 20 miles to Hayden.”

When years passed without a grocery store materializing, Cindy Peterson and her sister-in-law, Linda Peterson, decided to act. They opened Little Town Market on Highway 54 in August. The compact store offers basics that rural residents might need between trips to a larger grocery store – beer, live bait, frozen steaks, work gloves and even a small selection of fresh produce, flowers and fine wines.

“One man comes in every day to buy a flower for his wife,” Linda Peterson said.

The two women try to accommodate customer requests. They added soy milk after several regulars asked for it and sugar-free chocolates for diabetics. Chicken appeared in the freezer case after several clients told them, “If you would just carry chicken, I wouldn’t have to go to town.”

The women’s business strategy, though, is based on the assumption that sooner or later, Athol’s 700 residents will take their master shopping lists to Wal-Mart, Albertsons or Super 1.

In the meantime, milk costs just 5 cents more per gallon at Little Town Market than it does at Super 1 in Hayden, Linda Peterson said. “We didn’t want to gouge people.”

By opening a grocery store, the two women are bucking national trends. Nationwide, the number of grocery stores shrank by 3,500 between 1997 and 2002, according to U.S. Census figures.

“What we see is a lot of gobbling up of small grocers by national chains – Wal-Mart in particular,” said Bill Ryan, an economic development specialist with the University of Wisconsin’s extension service. “That makes it difficult to provide grocery stores in small towns.”

But independent grocers can thrive by finding a niche, Ryan added. Fast, friendly service builds customer loyalty, he said. People tend to patronize grocery stores that are close geographically and carry the items they need, he said.

The grocery business was a new arena for Cindy Peterson, a retired emergency room nurse, and Linda Peterson, a former bartender. Their planning began at a kitchen table. First, they wrote out lists of items they thought an Athol grocery store should carry. Next, they hit the aisles of supermarkets.

The sisters-in-law studied store layouts, jotted down prices and asked questions. Super 1’s produce manager gave them helpful advice. They also quizzed Rudy Spencer, the former owner of Spencer’s Excell Foods in Post Falls.

“He told us not to get too big,” Linda Peterson said.

Hammering accompanied the planning. The two women helped their husbands construct the building at 6101 Highway 54. Little Town Market shares the structure with Big Boyz Toyz, which repairs and sells accessories for snowmobiles, motorcycles and ATVs and is run by the women’s husbands, Terry Peterson and Rodger Peterson.

The four months leading up to Little Town Market’s opening were intense. The women were surprised to learn that they needed a pharmacy license to sell Tylenol. Food supplier URM had hesitations about taking on such a small account. The sisters-in-law also had a frank talk about the dynamics of running a family business. For five years, they’d been close friends.

“We said that we would sell the business before it damaged the family,” Cindy Peterson said, while her sister-in-law nodded.

During the first month of operations, the women put in 16- and 17-hour days. They eventually hired two employees, but they still work long hours.

Interacting with customers energizes them. The front of the store includes a coffee pot, doughnut case and a table where clients stop to read the paper or just visit.

“We didn’t want it to look like a convenience store,” Linda Peterson said. “We wanted it to look homey.”

On a recent morning, traffic through the store was light but steady. Christy Justin stopped by to pick up some apple juice for her young daughter. “I love this store. They’re so reasonable in price,” she said.

Justin does her main grocery shopping at Wal-Mart, but she stops at Little Town Market for odds and ends. Before, if she ran out of dog food on a Saturday, her options were driving into town or paying higher prices at a convenience store, Justin said.

Little Town Market isn’t in the black yet, the sisters-in-law said. But cash flow has been positive, and the rewards go beyond financial.

“There isn’t a day that goes by when people don’t stop to thank us for opening,” said Linda Peterson.