Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, Oct. 4, 1999

New owner settling in at LP Market and Deli

By Luis Puga

As Roger Weiland bid an emotional farewell to Lester Prairie and Roger's Jack and Jill in July, community members may have felt they were losing a leader and friend.

However, perhaps those feelings were mitigated somewhat by the fact that Bob DeMaris was in line to take his place as new owner of the grocery store in Lester Prairie, now known as Lester Prairie Market and Deli.

DeMaris' initial transition to the new business is over and marked by a new sign over the store. The front has also been painted.

Inside, customers have also noted some changes. The new store has gone through a process of consolidating and moving inventory, resulting in the aisles being spaced further apart.

"Some people think it's a bigger store," DeMaris laughed.

On top of that, the new owner has added steam cleaner rental; a section of brooms, mops, and other cleaning supplies; and two new dairy cases.

With an evident sense of humor, DeMaris notes that some customers have become a little lost by some of the changes and have asked for maps to find their favorite inventory.

Overall, he said that people are very happy to see the store open, and adds how important it is for a grocery store to not close its doors, even for a day.

He said that a customer who would have come one day to find the store closed might not come again, causing the process of rebuilding a customer base to take longer.

Still, the community has embraced the new owner - literally. He has received hugs from some older customers who may depend on the store to be open.

DeMaris, a Victoria native, has strong ties to Lester Prairie.

Both his parents, Bert and Leona, live in Lester Prairie and were the source of his initial contact to the opportunity to own the store.

As DeMaris recounts his extensive work experience in food retail, one gets the impression that it was an inevitability that he would own his own store.

In the late '70s, DeMaris began in a store almost identical in size and situation to the one he owns now. Perhaps because it was fun for him, he continued to involve himself in the industry.

After some time in the army and during college, he worked at Cash Wise in St. Cloud. He then went into the wholesale side of the business, working for Super Valu in Hopkins.

Next, he was a grocery buyer at the Hopkins warehouse for six years. He also spent two years as a general merchandise buyer at Super Valu's home office.

"Then, when I decided I didn't want to work in corporate-neck-tying-cubicles, I knew that I wanted to get more retail training because I wanted to get into the retail management of grocery stores," he said.

DeMaris then obtained his real estate license so he could have additional income while he worked overnight part-time at Cub Foods in Eden Prairie.

As he puts it, "I stepped down to go around."

Looking for full-time employment, he became a manager for a Holiday station for several years. He admits that experience was good training, but jokes that running a 24-hour convenience store can be a hard life.

"Sometimes, you're the only one who believes you have to show up," he said.

He then moved to working in direct store delivery with a bread route salesman. It was then that he told his father that he would be interested in owning his own business. As it happened, his father, who worked at Roger's Jack and Jill, happened to know an owner interested in selling.

DeMaris admits that banks in general are skeptical of small business ventures. He said of getting a loan, "it wasn't easy, but it wasn't impossible," and it just depended on finding the right source with the right perspective.

Right now, he is working with a Small Business Administration loan, through a federal program. He also got help from the Southwest Minnesota Foundation, which is dedicated to job preservation in the area.

DeMaris currently has 18 employees and hopes that number will grow in the future.

Also, DeMaris is grateful for the help of the city government.

"The mayor, the council, the people were eager to talk about the possibilities to facilitate the (purchase of the) grocery store," he said.

The city helped DeMaris by purchasing the parking lot originally owned by Weiland. DeMaris said that helped a lot.

As such, DeMaris is contributing back by helping out at community events. He had a float in Friday's homecoming parade and also is part of the school's booster club and CAPP program.

Recently, he participated in a meeting with the area's senior citizens and has also been working with the kids at the high school to facilitate their needs as well.

DeMaris said all of this is part of being in a small town.

With all the changes, DeMaris is quick to point out that some things will remain the same. He is preparing for the deer season to do meat processing and offers custom processing as before.

For the future, he said that he wants to develop the "and Deli" part of the sign, serving more hot and cold foods. He said that by coming up with the right products and nice service, people will come to the store.

DeMaris emphasizes three points to his business: quality, convenience, and selection.

"I have to be smart enough to realize that each household runs an economy, and if I can't offer enough value in this little store either with service, convenience, or selection, people are going to travel. It's my job to give them what they are looking for."

As one of the few independently owned stores, DeMaris' is unique. He noted that Minnesota used to have the most independent grocery stores in the nation, but that climate has changed both in the metro and outlying areas.

Further, he said he believes the consolidation of stores under one umbrella will continue, but added that independent owners, like farmers in the '30s, might look to form types of cooperatives for themselves.

Moreover, he said that even small town stores are beginning to be affiliated with national suppliers, another change in his line of business.

Whatever the future brings, it is clear that DeMaris and the community are happy to be together.

As the deal developed over the summer, the city council was not shy about its gratitude for the store continuing to operate. It presented a key to the city to the new owner, and recently the Lester Praire Business Association welcomed DeMaris with an official ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Perhaps to mark the end of the major transitions, DeMaris also plans on holding a grand opening celebration Saturday, Oct. 23 with music, food and more.

He said that two other businesses might join him in the celebration and said, "Maybe we'll all do it together. That's the way small towns do it ­ everyone works together."

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