The owner of Kilty's Market says "support small" is a mindset, not just a once yearly activity.
The smell of sizzling brats wafted along 1st street, causing many stomachs to grumble and drawing employees and customers from nearby shops out onto the street.
The new Brat Cart outside Kilty’s Market was an immediate hit in the town of Mapleton, population 1700. There’s not a lot of retail on Main Street: just the bank, a restaurant and Kilty’s – so when something new pops up, people notice and word spreads fast. Each week this summer, Kilty’s Brat Cart offered a new specialty – the most popular were hands down the Philly Cheese Steak and Badger Brat. Turns out even hard-core Gopher fans will buy a Wisconsin themed brat if it’s as delicious as Kilty’s makes it. Once customers were done with their lunch, many headed into the market to buy a six pack to take home and grill later.
Part of the proceeds from Kilty’s Brat Cart go to local non-profits, who in turn provide the staff to run the stand.
The Brat Cart is one of many changes owner Kevin Maslakow has introduced at Kilty’s Market to bring in new customers. First the general manager, Kevin bought the small-town market just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Kilty’s, which has been a staple on 1st Street for more than 50 years, survived the first few years with minimal impact and the third year brought a sales increase of 10%. However, the rise of inflation brought on by the pandemic ate all of that profit, leaving Kevin right back where he started.
Refusing to get discouraged, Kevin started asking questions. He noticed that a lot of his customers were passing away or moving into retirement living in nearby Mankato. He also noticed that the younger generation coming in shopped differently: his busy times shifted from daytime to after work and new products were in demand. Kevin expanded his produce section, offering a more diverse range of fruits and veggies in much larger quantities.
“We sell a lot of cilantro. People are cooking with it now and it’s very popular. I’m not sure what the flavor is or what they put it in, but my customers like it so I stock as much as I can. People are also doing a lot of their cooking with the Instant Pot, so I added an entire section with spices and rubs just for Instant Pot recipes. If people want it, I listen and if I can I try and accommodate requests. I’ve had a lot of great ideas and suggestions.”
Owner Kevin Maslakow thanks his customers for supporting his local business by frequently raffling off gift baskets.
Another big change is the shift to social media. When Kevin started posting on Facebook he got a huge response. His customers love the ability to see next week’s specials before making a shopping list. Once Kevin was finally able to find a store manager, he handed her the job. Kilty’s now has 700 followers – which doesn’t seem like a lot until you hear this: those 700 followers are about 40% of the community.
Kilty’s is best known for their selection of smoked meats. Kitty has just a handful of employees, and one of his only full-time folks has just one job – keeping the meat counter stocked. While Kevin would love to see customers from other towns, people just don’t drive more than a few miles to shop at Kilty’s.
For a while, Kevin worried that grocery pickup, made popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, would eat into his business. Pickup isn’t going away – people love the convenience of online shopping and delivery without the hassle of setting foot into a store. Staff at Kelty’s will bag and walk your groceries to your car, but Kevin has no desire to add online or delivery services. That’s because there’s no way he could afford the labor: $20-25/hour to print out your grocery list, walk around the store gathering your items and then deliver to your car or your door. It’s not in his budget and he suspects its costing larger chain stores a pretty penny.
Kevin’s employees may be small in number, but they all love their jobs and helping cutomers at Kilty’s Market.
“What was once the Sears catalog experience – placing an order and having your items delivered to your door – is now the Amazon experience – same idea with a much faster result. In ten years, something else will replace Amazon. What’s next? Who knows. But I believe there will always be a space for small town grocery stores. Small towns rely on small businesses, we’re a part of the community. That’s why this year we’re encouraging everyone in Mapleton to not just shop small but support small. Small Business Saturday shouldn’t be a once-a-year experience but an everyday mindset.”
This year, a nearby Hy-Vee is offering a Thanksgiving special. For $30, you can get a frozen turkey, can of green beans and cream of mushroom soup, bag of potatoes, can of cranberry sauce, jar of gravy and a 12 pack of rolls. For customers that think his store is more expensive than the chain stores, he’s offering the same deal for the same price. Kevin’s products are often cheaper than the bigger chain stores – plus his customers save time and money on gas driving the 20 miles to Mankato.
To prove Kilty’s isn’t more expensive then nearby chain stores, Kevin is offering the same Thanksgiving deal for the same price.
While shopping at Kilty’s may not offer the fastest grocery shopping experience, Kevin isn’t worried about losing customers to the Cub Foods and Hy-Vee’s nearby. Kevin believes small town brick and mortar stores will always be relevant no matter how many worldwide pandemics or new technology changes shopping habits. Stopping by Kilty’s Market is a social experience with personable customer service you can’t find in bigger cities. Kilty’s slice of shopping brings on a craving that can’t be satisfied anywhere else.