Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

One last shot from Madison, Wisconsin June 13, 2018

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THE HUNTING CULTURE of Wisconsin is undeniably strong. Last fall, laws changed to eliminate the minimum hunting age. Now anyone—even a baby—can get a hunting license. That seems a little crazy to me.

Whatever. I don’t live in Wisconsin. But I visit occasionally. And on a recent stop in downtown Madison, I saw a creative message in a second-floor window for a business with an unusual name. 12 Gauge Construction is a general contractor for commercial and residential construction. In the hunting world, 12 gauge is the most popular shotgun shell.

I don’t understand the hunting connection with a construction business. But even I appreciate the message of “GIVE US A SHOT as connected to the business name.

Thoughts?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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How two Faribault businesses made me smile with great customer service May 2, 2018

In the small town of Ellendale, kids bike to Lerberg’s Foods for groceries and the occasional slushie. Here two sisters and a friend slurp their slushies while sitting on bags of water softener pellets next to the pop machine. This is one of my favorite images of a small town local business. I took this photo in August 2011. Lerberg’s Foods is still in business.

 

I VALUE GREAT CUSTOMER service. It can be the deciding factor in whether I patronize a business. If I have a bad experience, I’ll think twice about returning. If I have a great experience, you bet I’ll give that business my business.

Now more than ever, customer service holds significant value along our main streets. It is one way local businesses can compete with online shopping. Not that that is a personal concern for me; I seldom shop online. But most people do. So our local shopkeepers need to go that extra mile to create a welcoming experience that meets customers’ needs.

What comprises great customer service? For me, it starts with a smile. The minute I walk in the door, I should be greeted, valued. I don’t need a clerk or store owner who hovers, but I appreciate someone who is subtly attentive. Help me if I appear overwhelmed, uncertain or can’t seem to find whatever. Listen. Offer choices. Answer questions. And then listen some more. Or leave me alone if I’m sending body language signals that I’d rather be left to browse.

I expect it’s not always easy to determine how to best serve a customer. But a shopkeeper can’t go wrong by simply being nice. And helpful.

 

 

I cite two recent examples from my community of Faribault where two grocery store employees showed exceptional customer service. Both on the same day. While at Hy-Vee, I was approached by an employee who apparently noticed me filtering for too long through clamshells of strawberries special-priced at $1.28/pound. I couldn’t find any berries that weren’t over-ripe and/or rotting. Even at a bargain, I won’t pay for bad produce and dislike when a grocer tries to sell food that should be tossed.

But this employee decided he wanted a satisfied customer. He offered to go to the back storeroom and find a pack of acceptable berries. Two if I wanted two, although I pointed out the “Limit one to a customer” sign. He would bring two, he said. I waited until he returned. With only one pack. But that was OK. He also promised to have those over-ripe berries cleared from the shelves.

At my next grocery store stop, I experienced exceptional customer service in the bakery department of Fareway Meat & Grocery. I was on a mission to find a smiley face cookie for my two-year-old granddaughter. Typically those cookies are sold at Hy-Vee. But on this Saturday they weren’t immediately available. I didn’t have time to wait an hour so headed to Fareway hoping for the coveted cookie.

 

 

I found smiley face cookies, six to a package. But I didn’t want six. I wanted one. Perhaps, I thought, I could buy a single cookie from the pick-your-own selections. Turns out the cookies aren’t sold individually. I explained my dilemma to the baker, how I had hoped to buy one cookie for Izzy for her second birthday because her mama loved smiley face cookies when she was a little girl. The baker smiled, then told me to pull a package from the shelves. I could have one, she said. At no charge.

You can bet my mouth curved as wide as the blue smile on that cookie. My joy in that simple gesture of kindness shone as bright as the yellow frosting. Granted, giving away that cookie didn’t cost Fareway much money. But it was priceless in terms of exceptional customer service.

That’s what I’m talking about as we celebrate Small Business Month in Minnesota during May and National Small Business Week from now until May 5. Hy-Vee and Fareway may not classify as small businesses. But two employees at their Faribault stores exemplified outstanding customer service to me. And that, my friends, is how Main Street can compete in today’s global online marketplace.

TELL ME: What’s your definition of great customer service? Give me an example. Do you shop local or mostly online?

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Uncle Harold April 24, 2018

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Harold Kletscher

MY UNCLE HAROLD died on Saturday. Unexpectedly. He was eighty-four. Even though he lived a long life, the length of years never seems enough for loved ones. The loss is no less difficult.

Harold, like two other uncles, lived within a mile of the farm place where I grew up in southwestern Minnesota. He was just always around. At church on Sunday mornings. Visiting the farm. But most often, working at the gas station he owned and operated along Minnesota State Highway 19 in Vesta. The business long ago closed.

In January 2014, I interviewed my uncle and wrote about his memories and my memories of Harold’s Service. I am thankful I took the time to listen to my uncle’s stories of doing business in a community of some 350. These businesses, once the backbone of small town economies, are dwindling. It’s important that we document the stories of these entrepreneurs as much for historical reference as for examples of determination, hard work and service. Today I direct you to that post (click here), as I think of my beloved uncle—husband, father, grandfather, businessman, city employee, church janitor, small town city councilman, volunteer and man of faith.

I am fortunate to come from a large extended family of many aunts, uncles and cousins. Nearly all lived within close geographical proximity back in my growing up years in Redwood County, Minnesota. We celebrated birthdays and anniversaries together. These days, with my generation of cousins and our families now spread well beyond the prairie, we see each other only once a year at the annual Kletscher Family Reunion. Or at funerals.

There is comfort in memories and in the closeness of extended family. We have a legacy of faith passed from our great grandparents. They were among founding members of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta. Funerals for my grandparents, father, and other uncles were held there. This week we gather again at St. John’s, to remember Uncle Harold. Loved by many. And now in his eternal home.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Biancabella, books & bliss at Becky’s bookshop October 30, 2017

 

PRINCESS BIANCABELLA first drew me to the business along Milaca’s main drag. Stretched out atop carpet next to stacks of books in the front window display area, the calico cat appeared blissfully content. Not even my photographic efforts disturbed her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scene delighted me—this bookstore cat in one window, a vintage typewriter in another and a creative OPEN sign crafted from a book and propped outside Bexter Book & Copy.

 

 

It’s not often anymore that you find an independent bookstore, especially in a town the size of Milaca with not quite 3,000 residents. This shop, which opened about a year ago, anchors a corner of the downtown business district in an historic building. And it appears the owner, Rebecca Rittenour, is working hard to make her business a success. She not only sells new and used books, but also offers hometown copy services and engages her patrons via a Mystery Book Club, creative in-store displays and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I especially like her artistic vignettes that encourage folks to shop local. I didn’t speak much with Becky other than to greet her, ask for permission to photograph and praise her store. But I got the sense, both from wandering the bookshop and from reading the Bexter website and Facebook page, that she truly holds a passion for books and for sharing her love and knowledge with others. That’s always the benefit of shopping local—excellent customer service from a passionate shopkeeper.

 

 

 

 

Milaca is fortunate to have an independent bookstore with books tucked into open drawers, filed onto shelves and showcased in artful ways.

 

 

On my quick stop in town, this bookshop charmed me with its vivid chartreuse walls, homey character and resident princess cat.

 

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite independent bookstore? If yes, what delights you and draws you to this bookshop?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The things you learn about Minnesota prisons while on the road October 25, 2017

 

ONCE UPON A TIME, beginning in the late 1870s, inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility, Stillwater, built agricultural equipment. Through the years they crafted threshing machines, hay rakes, barge wagons, manure spreaders and more.

 

 

This proved news to me. But Randy noted that as we followed a tractor pulling a gravity box along LeSueur County Road 13 on Sunday afternoon. He pegged the wagon as 1970s vintage prisoner made.

 

 

Online research confirmed Randy’s claim in articles published in Farm Collector magazine. According to those stories, prisoners built ag equipment until 2006.

 

 

Today inmates within Minnesota’s correctional system—including right here in my community of Faribault—produce products through the prison system’s MINNCOR Industries. Those range from residential and office furniture to clothing to printed materials to cabinetry and more.

 

Prisoner made furniture at Buckham Memorial Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2017.

 

When I visit my local library, I can sit on inmate built easy chairs or loveseats, some upholstered in knock-knock joke fabric with this favorite prisoner joke:

How do prisoners make phone calls?

With cell phones.

 

 

Much has changed since the days of building manure spreaders…and gravity boxes

 

 

as time passes in the rearview mirror of prison life.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A first in Minnesota, a meat vending machine in Ellendale October 19, 2017

Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale is co-owned by Donnavon Eaker and her daughter, Rachael Lee. Steve, married to Donnavon, died in 2006. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

YOU CAN BUY candy, snacks, sandwiches, pop and more from a vending machine. Ditto for renting movies and getting cash. Now a small southeastern Minnesota meat market is offering its award-winning smoked and cured meat products to customers via a vending machine.

 

The Ellendale Centennial Mural along Main Street. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

I couldn’t quite believe this when I heard a radio spot promoting the newly-installed meat vending machine outside Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale just off Interstate 35 south of Owatonna. But there it was, documented on Steve’s Facebook page and promoted as the first of its kind in Minnesota and second in the U.S. The machine comes from Germany.

 

Smokey Acres is the in-house label for Steve’s meats. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

Smokey Acres…Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

An artsy window display at Steve’s promotes its fresh cut meat. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

Installed last week, the vending machine seems like a smart move on the part of the Ellendale market, a family run business for more than 40 years. The shop can’t be open all the time, frustrating consumers who today seemingly want 24/7 access to Steve’s products. Now happy customers can come anytime day or night for beef sticks, cheese curds and more, yes, even bacon. Just bring your debit or credit card; the machine doesn’t accept cash or Ebt cards.

 

In the small town of Ellendale, kids bike to Lerberg’s Foods for groceries and the occasional slushie. Here two sisters and a friend slurp their slushies while sitting on bags of water softener pellets next to the pop machine. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

 

This meat vending machine is creating quite the buzz in this community of nearly 700 where you’ll also find an old-fashioned grocery store—Lerberg’s Foods—worth visiting.

 

Steve’s is one of those small town meat markets that draws customers both far and wide for its quality products. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

While Steve’s claims their refrigerated meat vending machine as the first in Minnesota, some 100 miles away to the north in Hudson, Wisconsin, RJ’s Meats installed one earlier this year.

 

TELL ME: What do you think of this idea?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Closed, much to my disappointment July 10, 2017

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SOMETIMES IT’S JUST too hot to do business…apparently.

 

Photographed last week in downtown Elysian, Minnesota, when the temp hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling