KINGSLEY, Iowa | Chet Davis, 72, has a habit of greeting each customer entering his grocery store by name.
This is an easy habit to get into since he has owned Chet's Foods in the middle of downtown Kinglsey for nearly 40 years.
"Some of my customers have been with me since day one," Davis admitted. "Many times, I've waited on multiple generations of the same family."
Leaning against a counter, Davis said he didn't set out to become a grocer. It was just something he fell into.
"Like a lot of people, working in a grocery became my first part-time job as a teenager," he said. "Unlike a lot of people, working in a grocery became my career."
Indeed, Davis experienced the corporate side of groceries while working for the Omaha-based supermarket chain Hinky Dinky for many years.
"I was at (Sioux City's) Hinky Dinky when I decided to branch out on my own," he said. "I was a young guy with a family to feed and thought running a small-town grocery store seemed like a good fit for me."
The golden age
When Davis opened Chet's Foods at 128 Main St., there were two other grocers in the Plymouth County town of 1,400. Now, Davis has the market all to himself.
"Every small town had multiple grocery stores and every city had many small neighborhood groceries," he said, shaking his head. "That's not the way things are anymore because independent markets can't compete with the big guys."
Davis noticed the tides were beginning to shift back in the 1960s.
"Yeah, I remember when the A&Ps and the Council Oak stores started popping up," he recalled. "Then, there were the Hinky Dinkys and the Piggly Wigglys slowly acquiring more and more space."
Nowadays, Davis is competing with such supermarket heavy-hitters as Hy-Vee, Fareway and Walmart.
"Independent grocers can't compete with the big guys when it comes to prices," he said with a grimace. "I may be able to work with a local distributor for a good deal on soda pop but Hy-Vee has the leverage to work with the manufacturers directly.
"That means I'll never have the cheapest prices," Davis said. "It's a sad fact, but I don't have the clout because I can't guarantee the volume."
This is even more apparent at the Chet's Foods location Davis owns at 741 Frontage Road in Moville, Iowa.
"In Moville, we're near (a national dollar store chain)," he said. "It's hard to compete with a chain store."
LOCAL EQUALS CONVENIENCE
However, Davis knew he had something many national chains don't have.
"People knew me and they knew my family," he explained. "We were local people, and customers like shopping local."
To be honest, some of Davis' customers didn't have a choice.
"Many of my customers are older," he reasoned. "It isn't easy or practical for them to go all the way to Sioux City or Le Mars to shop at a supermarket chain. Shopping in town is just more practical."
That's especially true since Chet's Foods offers grocery delivery Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
In addition, some of the shoppers in Davis' store are young mothers.
"We're a full-service grocery store that is right in town," he said. "Having to drive 20 miles to Sioux City or 20 miles to Le Mars is a hardship when you have a small child in tow."
Davis knows a lot about family. He and his wife are the proud parents of four children and eight grandchildren.
"Like me, many of my kids and grandkids had their first jobs at the grocery store," he said. "That's nice for them since they get real work experience. But it's fun for me because I get to spend some extra time with them."
THE PRIDE OF A HOMETOWN GROCER
On a back wall of Chet's Foods is a bulletin board that is filled with letters and postcards from school booster clubs, service groups and churches. All of them thank Davis' store for donating food or providing service to the community.
"I take pride in being a local hometown grocer," he said. "We may be fewer in numbers but we're still vital."
"People ask me if I'll ever retire," Davis said in a wistful manner. "Don't known if I'll ever retire completely, but I plan on taking more days off."
So, what does that mean?
"I'll be working five days a week instead of seven days a week," Davis said. "This community has been good to me and I plan on being here as long as I can."