Pulling into the parking lot of Jason’s Super Foods in New Town, the June heat hovers above the asphalt as an employee assists a customer loading groceries into the back of their car. Entering the store brings instant, refrigerated-air relief: the kind that smells like floor cleaner, fresh corn, and a hot grill. It’s Taco Tuesday and a large whiteboard in front of the counter at the Delicatessen counter announces that the special is Taco in a Bag for $6. The display at the front of the store features a variety of patriotic goods from beach towels to cookies with thick frosting and red, white, and blue sprinkles. With Independence Day around the corner and North Dakota’s always present breeze, no wonder only a handful of shiny foil pinwheels are left.
A cashier tries to point out which aisle Jason Tracy is in, but he’s helping a customer locate a particular item, and he’s on the move. “Just wait here for a second,” the cashier says as Jason disappears behind an end cap, “I’ll catch him when he comes back around."
Jason is the current owner of Jason’s Super Foods, a family legacy operation with locations across rural North Dakota: Leeds, Crosby, Lignite, Mohall, Westhope, Bottineau, and New Town. Jason’s parents, Patrick and Debby Tracy, founded Tracy’s Grocery in Leeds in 1989.
“The grocery store is in my blood,” says Jason, “I was in the store bagging groceries starting when I was eight.”
Jason bought out his parents’ business in 2006 and continued to buy up stores in small communities. Far beyond a mom & pop-type shop, each branch of Jason’s Super Foods offers fresh produce, a full meat department, and a bakery with larger locations, like New Town, providing a full deli, and floral and catering options. This is no small feat in Western North Dakota where many towns are beyond the routes of food distributors. There’s not enough volume to make it economically feasible for certain supply chains. Jason remarks how Westhope, a town of less than 500 people, struggled to get bread. “I’ll buy 20,000 pounds of ribeyes and then we split it between the stores. These towns are fifty, seventy miles from the next place with a grocery store. If you want your community to thrive, you need those amenities.”
In 2008, Congress charged the U.S. Department of Agriculture with monitoring the extent of regions in the United States that could be considered “food deserts.” A food desert is an area with a limited number of food retailers and restricted availability of fresh produce and healthy grocery options at affordable prices, among other factors. Even in North Dakota, one of the nation’s biggest agricultural producers, major food desert areas exist. Jason’s Super Foods is an oasis in a time when, according to the Creating a Hunger Free North Dakota Coalition, our state has lost 20% of local, rural grocery stores.
“The grocery store is the mainstay of the community,” says Jason.
In North Dakota, the economy is a rubber band that stretches or constricts based on economic shifts, or even the weather. This means offering more grocery delivery in the winter or ensuring the two meat-cutters on staff have enough support to cover increased traffic during the summer lake season; Jason’s Super Foods employs 120-140 people across the region. The oil boom and COVID19 pandemic have each brought their own challenges but haven’t swayed Jason’s resolve. “We’ve always held steady. Every community we’re in is a strong community. They support us and we support them.”
The small town grocer is in a tough spot: aging populations, evolving industry standards that often eradicate the jobs that once kept rural communities alive, and the arrival of the big box store. “We don’t compete with Walmart and we never will. The problems are the dollar stores. They might draw in a lot of business when they first open, but our customers will stay loyal. They know us and what we have to offer. A lot of our customers are older; they don’t want the madness of a big chain store. They want the delivery and the carryout. They want to know we’re here for them, even if it’s just to reach something from a top shelf.”
For Jason, another barrier in creating a rural grocery empire was growth. “It’s tough to make a living on one store anymore. The grocery business depends on moving a large volume.” Many grocery stores are run by generations of the same family and passing the torch and legacy onto an ‘outsider’ can be an emotional transition for a community. But Jason believes the future of the industry depends on energetic newcomers with big visions.
“The biggest issue is the financing. I was young when I purchased Westhope, but getting a bank to help out a young guy can be difficult. These people want to take on projects and they have the passion and aren’t afraid of anything, it’s just that financial component that might deter them.”
In order to feed his passion, Jason sought out the help of programs offered by Souris Basin Planning Council (SBPC), who assisted in finding means of funding for the Mohall store and building the New Town location, which created over sixty jobs.
“SBPC helped me find the right path to make these ventures successful. They knew what these projects meant, that before the financing, before anything, it starts with the community. You’ve got to invest in the stuff you want to keep. There’s everything out there, right there, for someone to get started.”
The most impressive part of visiting several Jason’s Super Foods locations was the diversity of the stores themselves. From small corner stores to New Town’s expansive aisles, each location carried the necessities: the milk, bread, and eggs we all rely on, as well as more specific local favorites: Dot’s Pretzels and beef jerky. Jason is even sure to stock certain items that are vital to Native American traditional recipes: oxtail, cow tongue, and tripe. Each store is as different as the community it feeds. Well-worn linoleum or new produce coolers, faux wood-paneling covered in handmade ads for garage sales and local auctions and well-wishes to high school graduates or touch-screen cash registers. It's clear that for Jason and his staff, they understand the importance of a stocked shelf and taking stock of what it means to support a community.
“Every store in North Dakota is going to sell you the same can of chicken noodle soup. From the smallest store to the biggest chain. So we’re going to be better and offer what they can’t.”