Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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

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Mazeppa, not just another small Minnesota town, Part II March 29, 2018

A scene in downtown Mazeppa, photographed in October 2016.

 

SMALL TOWNS CONTINUE to hold my interest.

 

The former creamery in Mazeppa houses the city maintenance garage and also serves as a backdrop for historical art.

 

 

Therein I often find unexpected delights, but also decline. Most of these communities are not the places they once were with thriving businesses lining Main Street. You know the story.

 

Out for a walk in downtown Mazeppa, October 2016.

 

Still, these towns are home to life-long residents or kids who stuck around or newbies—folks looking for a quiet and affordable place to live within driving distance of jobs outside city boundaries.

 

 

People make a town. And if they’re lucky, locals still have places to gather for fish fries and beer and BINGO and a meal out. Gathering spots—restaurants, bars, schools, churches and more—provide that sense of community essential to small towns.

 

 

 

WD’s, destroyed by fire, was a community gathering spot.

 

I saw those communal places when I visited Mazeppa in October 2016 (although one—WD’s Bar & Grill recently burned to the ground).

 

 

 

 

Patriotism often runs strong in small towns. The presence of the well-kept American Legion Post 588 in the heart of downtown Mazeppa confirms that.

 

 

 

 

Mazeppa is a visual delight for a photographer. Signs crafted by local sign painter Mike Meyer give this southeastern Minnesota riverside community a signature artsy look. This is a town I remember.

 

A unique business in Mazeppa. The shop was closed when I was in town. Andy Denny builds banjos here.

 

That’s the thing, too, about small towns. They need an identity to draw visitors. A unique business or three. A historical site. A theater or other arts venue. A natural attraction.

 

The Maple Street Bridge crosses the north branch of the Zumbro River a block off Mazeppa’s Main Street.

 

How often have you sidetracked off a main highway or interstate, or even a county road, to drive through a small town, maybe even stop? Not that often, I expect. But you’re missing something by not doing so. You’re missing out on people and places and experiences that are grassroots America. Interesting. Yes, even that quintessential word “charming.” Perhaps vibrant or thriving. Maybe not. But still at their root essence, authentic.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

Propped by Mike Meyer’s sign shop.

 

 

 

 

When I was in town in October 2016, work was being done on the original 1909 bank building, now housing the Mazeppa Area Historical Society. The exterior covering of the beautiful brick building traces back to the 1970s when the former People’s State Bank was “updated.”

 

In 1912, an addition was made to the bank building to house the local newspaper.

 

Signage on the side of the historical society building.

 

TELL ME about a favorite small town and why you appreciate the community.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Revisiting downtown Sleepy Eye & the insights gleaned, Part I March 8, 2018

A painting of a Dakota chief on the city water tower gives travelers a hint at the history of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. The town is named after noted and respected Dakota Chief Sleepy Eyes. He settled with his band along Sleepy Eye Lake and is buried here with a monument and park dedicated to him.

 

YOU CAN LEARN A LOT about a community by simply walking through the central business district. Many times I’ve done just that with camera in hand. I’ve found that, through photography, I focus on details in addition to the overall scene. That gives me insight into a place.

 

I photographed this stained glass hanging in the front window of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass during a May 2016 visit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Most recently I walked along several blocks of downtown Sleepy Eye with my Canon DSLR while my husband shopped at Sleepy Eye Stained Glass for supplies for a church window he’s refurbishing. US Highway 14 (the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway) runs right through the heart of this small town in south central Brown County. That’s in southern Minnesota next to my native county of Redwood.

 

 

More than 30 years ago I lived and worked in Sleepy Eye for six months as a newspaper reporter and photographer. Thus I hold a certain familiarity of place. On this stop, I wanted to grab a sweet treat from the bakery next door to the newspaper office.

 

Sleepy Eye has many architecturally-pleasing aged buildings such as city hall.

 

I found, though, in the remembered location not a bakery, but rather K & J Antiques and Collectibles run by the welcoming Kurk K. Kramer. He happens also to work as the city’s Economic Development Authority coordinator. Given his friendly personality and clear love for Sleepy Eye, Kramer seems an ideal fit for the job. He laughed when I walked into his shop and asked for a doughnut from the long-closed bakery. He was a wealth of information about the town. I’ll share more in future posts and also show you a sampling of goods from Kramer’s shop.

 

A snippet of the downtown, situated along Highway 14, a major east-west roadway across southern Minnesota.

 

Despite my disappointment at the absence of the bakery, I still delighted in revisiting this town I called home for a short while. Whenever I explore a community, I look for fliers and notes posted in downtown businesses. Such finds often amuse me and present a snapshot of a place and its people. I love the small townishness of these public postings, these postscripts.

 

I saw lots of these stickers in many businesses, indicating a strong Chamber of Commerce and a sense of community pride.

 

Take a look at what I found in storefront windows. And then check back for more posts from Sleepy Eye. See what caught my eye as I wandered—and drew some curious looks—while the husband shopped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what do my photos tell you about Sleepy Eye? Like most small Minnesota towns, community dinners/breakfasts/brunches are an integral part of the social fabric and also indicate a strong volunteer base of caring residents. Heritage is important. Note the homemade sauerkraut and Landjaeger (a type of sausage) dinner and the Sleepy Eye Area Concertina Club signs. Politeness, humor and community pride are givens.

These are my assessments based on my quick walk-through of peering into downtown storefront windows.

TELL ME: Have you ever done the same to learn more about the personality of a community?

 

Check back tomorrow for Part II in my series titled “An outsider’s quick look at, & visions for, Sleepy Eye.”

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In appreciation of the Sunday afternoon drive: Snapshots from Main Street Waterville September 26, 2016

A recent street scene from small town Waterville, Minnesota.

A man and his dog in a recent street scene from small town Waterville, Minnesota.

SOME MIGHT LAUGH. Others may consider it an activity for old fogies. But I don’t care. I appreciate the Sunday afternoon drive. We all should.

I grew up with the occasional Sunday afternoon drive as a rare diversion from southwestern Minnesota farm life. My siblings and I would pile into the Chevy, Dad behind the wheel, Mom in the front passenger seat. My farmer father would steer the car along rugged township gravel roads, tires kicking a trail of dust. His drive had purpose, focus—to look at the crops.

Today I still study farm fields. But not with the same assessing eye as my dad. My livelihood doesn’t depend on yields from the land.

Still, those semi-leisurely drives taught me something important. They taught me the value of looking and truly seeing, of noticing the details. And they taught me the value of going for a drive.

In the past several years, since we became empty nesters, my husband and I have taken to Sunday (or Saturday) afternoon drives like moths to porch lights. We choose a general direction we want to travel and just go.

A snippet of Waterville's Main Street, including Ron's Hardware, jam-packed with merchandise.

A snippet of Waterville’s Main Street, including Ron’s Hardware Hank, jam-packed with merchandise. You have to see this place to believe it.

A Labor Day drive took us west to the small towns of Elysian and Waterville. We’ve explored both before. But, still there were new details awaiting discovery. I like nothing better than to park the van along the Main Street of a rural community and then walk, camera in hand, documenting the nuances that define a place.

Waterville is the self-proclaimed Bullhead Capitol of the World and celebrates Bullhead Days every June.

Waterville is the self-proclaimed Bullhead Capital of the World and celebrates Bullhead Days every June.

On this day, it was Waterville.

Bullheads Bar & Grill, one of several bars in Waterville.

This low-slung building along Main Street houses Bullhead’s Bar & Grill, one of several bars in Waterville. The name pays tribute to the bullhead, a fish abundant in area lakes.

The food sounds enticing and the prices really reasonable.

The food sounds enticing and the prices reasonable. If I hadn’t just eaten a Sticky Burger (burger with peanut butter and bacon) at Tucker’s Tavern in Elysian…

I appreciate vintage signage like this spotted on a downtown building.

I appreciate vintage signage like this spotted on a downtown building.

Madden's Orchard occupies this corner building next to a community park.

Madden’s Orchard occupies this corner building next to a community park.

And next to the mini park sits this mini building, which is for sale. I peered inside to see a popcorn machine, making this a former popcorn stand.

And next to the mini park sits this mini building, which is for sale. I peered inside to see a popcorn machine, making this a former popcorn stand. What possibilities could you see for this building besides reopening a popcorn stand?

Signage always catches my eyes, especially the vintage signs I often find in small towns.

Signage always catches my eyes, especially the vintage signs I often find in small towns.

Some lovely aged buildings occupy downtown Waterville. This one, left, houses a law office.

Many aged buildings occupy downtown Waterville. This one, left, houses a law office.

I love this simple, bold graphic marking The Cafe.

I love this simple, bold graphic marking The Cafe.

Singing Hills Coffee Shop anchors the corner building next to JC Ryan's Art Gallery. The coffee shop, which I blogged about four years ago, is available for lease. It's named after the

Singing Hills Coffee Shop anchors the corner building next to JC Ryan’s Art Gallery. The coffee shop, which I blogged about four years ago, is available for lease. It’s an inviting shop named after the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail, a recreational trail that runs through town from Faribault to Mankato. Waterville is a popular southeastern Minnesota lakeside resort community.

I had a maple bacon sundae when I visited the coffee shop in September 2016. It was closed when I was there this year and, I believe, is closed for the season.

I had a maple bacon sundae when I visited the coffee shop in September 2014. It was closed when I was there this year and, I believe, is closed for the season.

Just walking the dog...

Just walking the dog in downtown Waterville…

You can learn a lot about a small town simply by reading the posters, signs and notices on storefront windows and doors.

You can learn a lot about a small town simply by reading the posters, signs and notices on storefront windows and doors.

TELL ME: Do you take Sunday afternoon drives? If so, why? If not, why not?

FYI: Check back for more photos from Waterville.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part V from Wanamingo: Landmarks & oddities March 28, 2016

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Some of the airport luggage carts still remaining in Wanamingo.

Some of the airport luggage carts still remaining in Wanamingo.

MOST SMALL TOWNS possess oddities and landmarks unique to the community. Wanamingo in Goodhue County is no exception.

A few years back, I spotted row upon row of airport luggage carts parked outdoors in a lot on the north edge of town. It was the oddest sight. Only a small cluster of carts remains now. They’re still a mystery to me.

 

Small town Wanamingo, 47 elementary school

 

I am also intrigued by the massive pipes winding along the roofline of Kenyon-Wanamingo Elementary School. Typically, these heating (I presume) pipes run underground. Why are these atop the roof?

 

Small town Wanamingo, 44 butcher shop sign

 

At Wanamingo Meats and Catering, a hot pink sign and hot pink shutters draw attention to this downtown business owned by two sisters. That explains the pink. Butcher shops aren’t typically owned by women. Customers sing the praises of this business on its Facebook page.

 

Small town Wanamingo, 38 Ringo's sign above bar

 

Downtown, I noticed a bar and grill with a seeming identity crisis. A sign high on the building identifies the business as Ringo’s Bar & Grill. But an over-the-door sign banners J B’s Tavern.

I would love to get inside this aged house, to know its story.

I would love to get inside this aged house, to know its story.

On the north end of Main Street, I photographed a hulking old house with a widow’s walk. Surely there’s a story here. I expect the original owner may have been someone of great importance in Wanamingo.

That this portion of the old creamery was saved and posted on a highly-visible corner impresses me.

That this portion of the old creamery was saved and posted on a highly-visible corner along Minnesota State Highway 57 impresses me.

Finally, on the corner of Riverside Park, angles signage for Minneola Creamery. A quick google search tells me the creamery, organized in December 1893, was one of the most successful in Minnesota. In 1908, according to information in History of Goodhue County, Minnesota by Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge, the creamery manufactured 550,00 pounds of butter selling for $125,000. Oh, the things I learn because I notice and photograph. And because I delight in touring small town Minnesota.

WHAT ODDITIES OR LANDMARKS would I find in your town/city? Let’s hear.

FYI: Check back tomorrow as I conclude my “from Wanamingo” series. To read the first four posts in this series, check last week’s archives.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I from Wanamingo, a classic small town in Minnesota March 21, 2016

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Driving into downtown Wanamingo along Minnesota State Highway 57 on a Saturday afternoon.

Driving into downtown Wanamingo along Minnesota State Highway 57 on a recent Saturday afternoon.

ON THE CITY WEBSITE, Wanamingo is described as a classic small Midwestern town in Southeastern Minnesota. That seems accurate.

What then is a classic small Midwestern town?

Visiting early Saturday afternoon in downtown Wanamingo.

Visiting early on a Saturday afternoon in downtown Wanamingo.

It is a place where, on a Saturday afternoon in March, two guys lean on the back of a pick-up truck and converse outside a bar and grill.

Posted at a local park. I edited the phone number from the photo.

Posted at a local park. I edited the phone number from the photo.

It’s a place where a notice in the park information center requests help in finding Belle, a missing Siamese cat.

Walking the puppy downtown. Wanamingo still has an old style water tower.

Walking the puppy downtown. Wanamingo still has an old style water tower.

It’s a place where a friendly young couple walks their curly-haired puppy, allows a visitor to pet him and then wishes the out-of-towner a good afternoon.

 

Small town Wanamingo, 37 parts service

 

Small town Wanamingo, 40 insurance building

 

Small town Wanamingo, 36 grain bins

 

It’s a place with solid brick buildings in a downtown occupied by businesses like a meat market, a bar, a cafe, a garage, law and insurance offices, and grain bins banking the north end of Main Street.

 

I love the classic corner angled gas station.

I love the classic corner angled gas station.

Wanamingo has that small town rural feel, that sense of life moving at a slower pace. Traffic is minimal downtown, even though Minnesota State Highway 57 doubles as Main Street. And, yes, the main street is named Main Street.

 

Small town Wanamingo, 46 bike in yard

 

In this classic small Midwestern town, kids drop bikes in yards.

 

Beautiful Trinity Lutheran Church. I'll take you on a tour of the church in an upcoming post.

I’ll take you inside Trinity Lutheran Church in an upcoming post.

A life-long resident tinkers with a light post outside Trinity Lutheran, a stalwart brick corner church that holds the histories of so many local families. Births, marriages, deaths.

Wanamingo, platted in 1904, is not Utopia. No place is. But it is a community of about 1,100 that seems, from outward appearances, to care, to want to look its best, to be the kind of place folks want to visit or call home. It is a classic small Midwestern town.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for the second post in my “from Wanamingo” series. I’ll take you inside the Area 57 Coffee Cafe.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Utica, not New York, but Minnesota February 23, 2016

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A farm site just minutes east of Utica.

A farm site just minutes east of Utica in southeastern Minnesota.

YOU NEVER KNOW what oddities will surprise you in a small town, which is precisely why I delight in exploring rural communities.

Utica, a town of about 300 located along U.S. Highway 14 between Rochester and Winona, definitely presented some attractions worth photographing this past September. I use the word “attractions” loosely. What I find interesting may go unnoticed by others.

I'm always happy to see a grain elevator that has been maintained and is appreciated.

I’m always happy to see a grain elevator that has been maintained and is appreciated. These are small town treasures.

It was the red and grey grain elevator jutting above Utica that drew my husband and me off the highway and into this community as a freight train roared through town.

Utica may not have a website, but it has this sign to tell you a bit about the town.

Utica may not have a website, but it has this sign to tell you a bit about the town.

From there we swung onto Main Street and noted that Utica was founded in 1858, if the signage on Utica Storage is accurate. We laughed at the “ELV. PRETTY HIGH” notation.

The law.

The law…

...up close.

…up close.

And, if not for Randy, I would have missed the 10 Commandments posted on the front of the building.

The "can't miss it" house.

The “can’t miss it” house.

Then, in a residential area, a Victorian house painted in lavender hues presided on a corner. I wondered for a second if it might be a tea house, but saw no such signage. Apparently the owner just really likes this hue given the outbuildings are also painted lavender.

This reminded me of my Aunt Marilyn, whose house is not lavender, but who loves the color. And I once worked with legendary Northfield News editor Maggie Lee, who wore only lavender.

Utica is definitely a farming community.

Utica is definitely a farming community.

Utica’s final attractions were two tractors—a wonderfully restored John Deere and a rusting Farmall—staged for sale outside a shed.

Now, if we’d taken the fast route home via Interstate 90, we would have missed all of this. Utica would remain just a sign along the interstate. I would know nothing of its character, its individuality, its colors.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling