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Ellsworth grocery store thinks local

POSTED: September 4, 2014 7:00 a.m.
Linda Mowery-Denning/

Ignatuis Rodriguez, left, and Vern Redding are in charge of Gene's Heartland Foods at Ellsworth.

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Editor's Note - This is part of a series of stories the Independent-Reporter does every so often on local businesses.


Several years ago, when Gene’s Heartland Foods moved from its cramped downtown store to a new multi-million-dollar building on Kansas Highway 156, one of the questions owners asked themselves was: “What new goods and services can we offer to Ellsworth?”
As a result, the store doesn’t have a floral shop because Ellsworth already had two downtown florists when the new Gene’s opened in 2006. Other merchandise was excluded for the same reason.
“We’re not exactly local, but we try to think local,” said Ray Gembala, vice president of Clasen, Inc., the owner of the Ellsworth grocery store and eight others across Kansas. 
Gene’s was founded in 1974 by Gene Clasen, whose first store was a 60,000 square-feet former Checkers grocery in Wichita. Gene passed away more than two years ago and the Wichita store is no longer part of the business.
Clasen Inc. is now in the hands of Gene’s widow, Mary, and their son, James, who serves as president. The family owns stores at Fort Scott, Wamego, Eudora, Dodge City and Lyons. Former Boogaart stores at Ellsworth, Minneapolis, Anthony and Smith Center complete the list.
Gembala describes Gene’s as “an independently-owned small business,” especially when compared to the Krogers and Walmarts of the world. The store will even deliver groceries, to the elderly and others in need of the service.
“We can’t absolutely say we’re local, but we try to operate as a local business everywhere we do business,” Gembala said. “We’re very conscious about what makes a small community work.”
Pricing is one of the challenges faced by Gene’s and other independently-owned companies. At the end, Gembala said, pricing becomes a product of population and cost and smaller firms don’t have the buying power of giant retailers.
“We would love to sell as cheaply as they do, but we don’t have the leverage they do,” Gembala said. “We work with our wholesaler and try to buy as best we can ... some of it depends on distance from the warehouse, the freight factor.
“We do what we need to do to pay the bills and return a reasonable profit.”
When the Ellsworth store opened in 2006, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., was on hand for the dedication. At the time, he talked about economic development in a small, rural community sometimes being as basic as a grocery store.
Gene’s has 32 full- and part-time employees. That number increases in the summer when college students — many of whom who worked for the store in high school — return to their hometown for a couple of months and the grocery store puts them on the payroll.
“The community supports us pretty good here, and we support the community,” said Vern Redding, manager of the Ellsworth store for the past three years.
He said Gene’s supports the schools, athletic events and numerous other organizations and projects. The store also stages hamburger and hot dog feeds as a thank you to its customers. In addition, store employees are involved in the community.
The store’s assistant manager, Ignatius Rodriguez, is a member of Ellsworth’s Cowtown Committee, among other volunteer activities.
“You’d be amazed how many people  come off the highway,” Rodriguez said. “We’re really fortunate Gene’s was willing to invest in the community.”
Gembala said company officials enjoyed designing Ellsworth’s more than $3 million grocery because it allowed them to bring all their ideas together under one roof.
“It’s a big step for an independent retailer to make an investment like this, but this store was a real joy for us,” he said.
He said Ellsworth’s changing retail picture will force Gene’s to review its business operation and the merchandise it offers. However, the store will be around — for many years to come, he said.
“We’ve very positive and we want the other business owners to be positive, too,” Gembala said.
Redding also has faith in the future.
“I love coming to work,” he said. “This is just a nice community to do business in.”

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