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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Up North in Nisswa November 9, 2017

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Babe the Blue Ox of Paul Bunyan Legend stand on the corner by the tourism office along Nisswa’s Main Street.

 

ON THE THURSDAY I toured Nisswa in mid-September, the turtle race track stood empty, Babe the Blue Ox stood tall and this northern Minnesota community buzzed with visitors.

 

 

Set in the heart of lake country, this town of some 2,000 draws folks from nearby cabins, resorts and hotels to meander through the many shops that line several blocks of a route once followed by Native Americans traveling northward through these parts from southern Minnesota.

 

Babe the Blue Ox bears the history of Nisswa’s name on its flank.

 

The name Nisswa comes from the Ojibwe word nessawae meaning “in the middle” or “three.” Nisswa sits in the middle of three lakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On this day, I didn’t learn much about local history. But I did learn that these northerners rate as a friendly bunch. In business after business, shopkeepers greeted Randy and me with friendly smiles and welcoming attitudes. With the exception of signs prohibiting photos of merchandise (much of it original art) prevalent throughout Nisswa, I felt more than welcome.

 

 

A shopkeeper at The Fun Sisters Up North Boutique even convinced me to try on leggings and an appropriate bum-covering top. Inside my mind, I protested. But she was just so darned nice that I agreed. I’ll admit that I looked better than I thought in leggings. But I still felt like I was playing dress-up in fashionable attire totally foreign to me. She didn’t make the sale. But the clerk sold me on the genuine friendliness of Nisswa.

 

Signature northwoods birch logs propped outside a business.

 

I dropped my money in several other businesses, picking up Minnesota-themed gifts for friends and my granddaughter.

 

 

 

Vintage Native American art outside a shop tips visitors off to this region’s history.

 

 

The legend of Paul Bunyan, here interpreted in a woodcarving, runs strong in the Minnesota northwoods.

 

Nisswa presents a definitively northwoods feel with more than one Babe the Blue Ox and Paul Bunyan and plenty of buffalo plaid and loon art. Randy and I spent hours here ducking in and out of shops. And that says a lot for the attraction of Nisswa to someone like me who generally dislikes shopping. The original arts and crafts and merchandise with a Minnesota bent kept me interested.

 

 

 

Painted turtles mark businesses.

 

Although we didn’t patronize a Nisswa eatery, there are plenty of options for meals, treats and brew.

 

Had we arrived in Nisswa at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday weeks earlier, we would also have witnessed the weekly summertime turtle races. Reminders of that tourist draw are evident in the turtle race track and in turtles painted onto sidewalks in front of businesses. I applaud communities like this that hatch and then latch onto an idea that identifies and sets them apart from other towns. For Nisswa, it’s turtle races and friendly folks in quaint northwoods shops.

TELL ME: Have you been to Nisswa? What is your impression of this small Minnesota town?

Please check back for a closer look at the iconic Babe the Blue Ox statue along Main Street.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From the Minnesota northwoods: The charm & quirks of Park Rapids September 25, 2017

An array of shops pack downtown Park Rapids. A July 24 fire damaged the iconic marquee at Park Theatre, right.

 

“IT’S NISSWA ON STEROIDS,” I told my friend Sharon in describing Park Rapids, a resort town just to the north of her Minnesota home. She laughed. Both communities pack shops and tourists. But Park Rapids in Hubbard County is home to around 4,000 permanent residents. Sixty miles away in Crow Wing County, Nisswa’s population is half that. Add in the seasonal populations, though, and those numbers grow significantly.

 

At Smoky Hills Art Gallery, I discovered this lovely mural.

 

I toured both towns on a recent trek north with my husband for a book release party and my first-ever stay at a northwoods Minnesota lake cabin. Each community holds characteristics that make it unique and memorable.

 

Rain fell all afternoon during our Park Rapids visit.

 

For Park Rapids, it’s “the small town with the extra wide Main Street.” And the local tourism folks aren’t exaggerating with that tag. When we turned into downtown, I observed a parking lot of vehicles jammed into the business district. Vehicles parked diagonally curbside along both sides. But in the middle of this extra wide Main Avenue, two rows of vehicles also parked parallel. The unusual parking made quite the impression. I would later learn from a shopkeeper that the original town founders built the street wide to accommodate oxen drawn wagons.

 

I noticed, and appreciate, the beautiful potted plants that line the sidewalks in downtown.

 

 

 

On this rainy Friday afternoon, minimal extra space existed as seemingly everyone was in Park Rapids for the day rather than on nearby lakes. And being in town meant shopping and dining at businesses lining several blocks.

 

I love capturing the nuances of small towns, like this barbershop image.

 

Typically I don’t like shopping. But I managed to spend an entire afternoon ducking in and out of shops to peruse merchandise ranging from tourist kitsch to books to antiques to crafts to original art and much more. Because of the rain, I left my good camera (my Canon DSLR) in the van. That marked my major disappointment as Park Rapids offers so much to photograph. The smartphone camera would have to do on this visit.

 

Recommended as a place to dine, the logging camp was closed for the season.

 

There are dining options aplenty from bars to fancier restaurants and in between.

 

My heaping bowl of Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish with salad and bread on the side.

 

But before the merchandise browsing began, we needed to eat. We’d gotten several recommendations, but landed in a booth at The Good Life Cafe after a brief wait. Oh, my gosh, I cannot rave enough about the creamy and savory Wild Rice Hotdish described as vegetables parched with wild rice, cooked slow in vegetable stock and finished with mushrooms in a parmesan cream sauce topped with toasted almonds. This dish, with chicken added for a few dollars more, is divine, absolutely one of the best restaurant foods I’ve ever eaten. Randy ordered the Beer Cheese Pretzel Burger and was also impressed.

 

 

Fueled by fantastic food, we began our exploration of downtown Park Rapids with Ben Franklin as one of our first stops. I grew up with this five-and-dime, now a Main Street rarity. It still offers an eclectic collection of goods. But prices are, as you would expect, no longer nickel and dime low. I appreciated the opportunity to walk through this store and remember Ben Franklin as I once knew it.

 

 

I chose to skip the local pawn shop after noticing a sign outside the door that advised customers to PLEASE UNLOAD GUN AND REMOVE SKI MASK BEFORE ENTERING. Randy entered. I moved onto the next-door gift shop.

 

 

Upon the recommendation of friends, we both popped into Molly Poppin’s Gourmet Snacks which specializes in an assortment of flavored popcorns made on-site. Samples entice customers to buy, which we did—their top-selling caramel popcorn. I also favored the puppy chow (peanut butter/chocolate/powdered sugar) flavor.

 

 

As the afternoon wound down and our energy waned, we had one more stop, at the Minnesoda Fountain, an old-fashioned 1950s ice cream parlor.

 

 

Still full from lunch, we didn’t need the blueberry shake we shared. But when you’re on vacation, such indulgences require no excuses.

 

Please check back for additional vacation posts, including one on Nisswa.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A quick stop in the Minnesota German city of New Ulm August 3, 2017

Domeier’s German Store, snugged into a residential neighborhood for decades, is a must-see German import shop in New Ulm.

 

NESTLED IN THE MINNESOTA RIVER Valley, New Ulm has long been one of my favorite Minnesota communities. I love not only the sweep and rise of the valley and hills, but also the vibe of this definitively German city.

 

Nutcrackers peer out a window at Domeier’s.

 

My maternal family roots run deep in this region. Drop the surname Bode at the Guten Tag Haus in downtown New Ulm and a look of familiarity flashes across a clerk’s face. She knows the name. My ancestors settled just to the east in the farmland surrounding nearby Courtland.

Last weekend en route to a wedding in southwestern Minnesota, Randy and I scheduled time in New Ulm to peruse a thrift store and two German gift shops. I was looking for ethnic items for an upcoming Helbling family reunion. We’re having an Oktoberfest theme to celebrate my in-laws’ heritage. The mini German flags I needed as accents for bouquets of flowers in steins were elusive given the community’s recent Bavarian Blast. I found one at a price I was willing to pay. I need six.

 

The thrift shop Oktoberfest bier mug from Bismarck is perfect given the Helblings settled (and still mostly live) in that region of North Dakota. I found the last remaining 99-cent cotton German flag at the Guten Tag Haus.

 

Still, we scored, among other items, two bier mugs at the MVAC Thrift Store, German chocolate mice at Domeier’s German Store and that coveted German flag at the Guten Tag Haus, some at Crazy Days bargain prices. Success.

 

A snippet view of German Park.

 

This monument in German Park honors those who suffered in the US-Dakota War of 1862 which was centered in southwestern Minnesota.

 

Nearby a whimsical sculpture reminds visitors to keep the park clean.

 

In between shopping, Randy and I stopped for a picnic lunch and a respite at the beautiful German Park a block from New Ulm’s main drag. Here a fountain centers lovely gardens and pieces of art.

Whenever I’m in New Ulm, I feel comfortably at home. Sure, my ancestral roots are in this region. But it’s more than that. This southwestern Minnesota community works hard to preserve and present its German heritage in a welcoming way. I love that about New Ulm.

 

FYI: Click here to read a 2015 photo rich post I published on beautiful German Park.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I from La Crosse: The historic downtown through my camera lens March 22, 2017

Crossing the Mississippi River from La Crescent, Minnesota, into La Crosse, Wisconsin.

 

WITH MY APPRECIATION of historic buildings, La Crosse, Wisconsin, has become a favorite occasional destination. This Mississippi River town bordering Minnesota is about a half-way meeting point between my Faribault home and my second daughter’s home in eastern Wisconsin. We recently met there for a Saturday afternoon of dining and exploring.

 

Nearing downtown La Crosse.

 

I love shopping in La Crosse. Mostly photoshopping. While the rest of the family focuses on getting from one shop to the next, I am constantly distracted by the endless photo opportunities. “Go ahead, I’ll catch up,” I repeat.

 

Entering the historic downtown.

 

Signage painted on buildings draws my eye.

 

Some communities restrict signage on historic buildings. But in downtown La Crosse, anything seems to go, creating a visually diverse landscape of signs that pop color and interest into the streetscape. It works, adding character to this downtown.

 

Then I stand and swing my camera lens upward to photograph architectural details, vintage lettering on buildings and the many colorful and creative signs that landmark downtown businesses.

 

Downtown La Crosse is one busy place. On-street parking is a challenge to secure. However, four parking ramps are situated in the downtown and offer free parking on weekends. Same goes for street parking. The downtown features lots of one-way streets.

 

Everywhere you look, there’s something to catch a photographer’s eye.

 

Bridesmaids head for an ice cream treat at The Pearl Ice Cream Parlor, a must-stop ice cream shop and more along historic Pearl Street. Love The Pearl’s homemade ice cream.

 

Or I keep my camera at street level, capturing streetscapes. This downtown pulses with people and traffic.

 

Outside Kroner True Value Hardware store.

 

The day after St. Patrick’s Day, I spotted this cup of green beer on a window ledge in a bar. I also saw a glass of beer outside a bar entrance. Downtown La Crosse is packed with bars, I believe the highest per capita of any U.S. city, according to numerous online sources. (Google it.)

 

The ultimate (in my opinion) “I’m from Wisconsin” t-shirt showcased in the window of The Cheddarhead Store on Pearl Street.

 

Occasionally I direct my lens down to at-my-feet details or toward window scenes.

 

This colorful signage welcomes downtown visitors to Historic Pearl Street West.

 

I photographed this barge on the Mississippi River which edges downtown La Crosse.

 

The dining options in La Crosse are many, including Big Boar Barbecue. No, I haven’t eaten there. Yet.

 

Downtown La Crosse truly rates as a photographer’s/visitor’s dream—if you love historic river towns with aged, detailed architecture; colorful signage; character; diverse dining and drinking options; and a variety of unique shops.

FYI: Please check back for more posts from La Crosse.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The artsy allure of a Jordan antique shop February 22, 2017

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I’M DRAWN TO ANTIQUE SHOPS. Not necessarily because I’m scouting for an antique or collectible. Rather, the history, the art, the nostalgia, the connection to childhood memories draw me inside.

In an antique shop I find a certain comfort remembering days past, of simpler times, of stories, of the saving of an object that once meant something to someone.

 

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On a recent stop in the Minnesota river town of Jordan, I explored several antique and specialty shops, including LB Antiques along Water Street in the heart of downtown. Natural light poured through the lengthy front windows, adding warmth to a space that would work well as an art gallery. I always appreciate antiques grouped artfully in uncluttered settings.

Within LB Antiques, I saw the work of an artistic shopkeeper.

 

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I delighted in the graceful curve of an unadorned water pitcher symmetrically balanced between two ornate angel candle holders.

 

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Tucked into a mostly unseen floor space, a vintage clown graphic grabbed my attention. I’ve always appreciated graphics, a nod to my days working as a newspaper reporter, photographer and occasional page designer.

 

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On a shelf, the contrast of utilitarian textured metal pots created visual interest against signage in bold hues of yellow, orange, red and pink.

 

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Likewise, a fabric banner advertising the 1967 Saint Paul Winter Carnival contrasted with the day—an exceptionally warm February afternoon of temps reaching near 60 degrees.

 

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My eyes were drawn, too, to a beer bottle from Ernst Fleckenstein Brewery, a long ago brewery in Faribault. I alerted a local collector to this mint condition bottle with the lovely gold-edged type face.

 

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Even the block letters of a hand-printed sign soliciting merchandise caused me to pause and appreciate.

 

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In a back room, albums—two for $1—were stacked on tables, awaiting anyone willing to take the time to sort through them. For a collector of vinyl, this would equal striking a jackpot.

 

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That’s the thing about antique shops. What I might care about, another shopper would find of no interest. And vice versa. Our pasts shape our interests. And nowhere does that seem more evident than inside an antique shop.

TELL ME: Do you browse antique shops? Why? What draws you inside?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Poking around Jordan on a Saturday afternoon February 21, 2017

A scene in downtown Jordan on Saturday afternoon, an exceptionally warm February day in Minnesota.

A scene in downtown Jordan on Saturday afternoon, an exceptionally warm February day in Minnesota.

JORDAN, MINNESOTA is quintessential small town, the type of place where kids bike to the ballpark, propel skateboards down the middle of the street and walk the dog with friends.

A Chinese restaurant is housed in one of Jordan's many historic buildings.

Empire Wok, a Chinese restaurant is housed in one of Jordan’s many historic buildings.

It’s an historic town of aged buildings, a creekside restaurant dubbed The Feed Mill and a collection of gift, specialty and antique shops clustered within walking distance of each other.

Two guys rested on a bench Saturday afternoon in downtown Jordan.

Two guys rested on a bench Saturday afternoon in downtown Jordan.

Here curbside benches encourage sitting for a spell.

This sign drew me into a wonderful little shop.

This sign drew me into a wonderful little shop.

Inside The Jordan Junker I found this creatively repurposed school desk.

Inside The Jordan Junker I found this creatively repurposed school desk with a U.S. map top-side. It would make for a unique end table. And, yes, the desk opens to storage inside.

Creative signage lures shoppers.

Customer favorites at Pekarna Meats are smoked pork sausage, ring bologna and baby back ribs.

Customer favorites at Pekarna Meats, family-owned since 1893, are smoked pork sausage, ring bologna and baby back ribs.

And the meat market sees a steady stream of customers.

Numerous shops are located downtown.

Numerous shops are located downtown.

Saturday afternoon my husband and I popped into this 1854 Minnesota River Valley community to poke around a few downtown shops. I appreciate the slower pace of Jordan, the Mayberry feel of this place with railroad tracks slicing through the business district. Here shopkeepers chat it up with customers in a welcoming way that is neighbor-friendly.

Two historic log cabins are situated downtown where bikers and others stopped on Saturday afternoon.

Two historic log cabins are situated downtown where bikers and others stopped on Saturday afternoon.

The community has a good vibe. And although our stay was brief and we didn’t see everything Jordan offers, I got a good sense of this small town. Only months earlier I visited Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store located along U.S. Highway 169 on the outskirts of Jordan. That place buzzes with busyness and the rush of traffic on the four-lane, so different from the quiet of downtown.

I delight in exploring small Minnesota towns like Jordan. This merchandise was displayed outside The Vinery Floral Home & Garden.

I delight in exploring small Minnesota towns like Jordan. This merchandise was displayed outside The Vinery Floral Home & Garden.

I’ll return to Jordan, next time better prepared with an itinerary. Seven years have passed since my last stop in the heart of the community. I won’t let that much time lapse before my next visit.

Another eye-catching sign outside a local garage.

Another eye-catching sign outside a local garage.

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite small town? I’d like to hear.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for a close-up of a Jordan antique shop.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling