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Rural businesses strive to be destination known

R-B Drive In U.S. States map
The R-B Drive In in Hutchinson, Kansas, has been drawing people from far-flung places since 1948 for its burger, pork tenderloin sandwiches, fries, onion rings, and shakes. | Photo courtesy of R-B Drive In

For some small businesses, zeroing in on their uniqueness has helped them endure 2020’s turbulence.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rolled through the summer and into fall, the dreary news for small businesses kept piling up.

While thousands of enterprises shut down at least temporarily – and many permanently, although the specific count is in fluxU.S. Census Bureau polling showed that 75% of small business owners said the pandemic had a large or moderate negative effect on their business.

A Kauffman Foundation survey comparing the challenges entrepreneurs reported in the spring and the fall of 2020 showed a noticeable increase in concerns about finding customers, self-doubt and fear, and worry about covering expenses. Further down the list, but still significant: a 5% rise in concern about location, region, or geography.

“A tornado destroyed a third of our town in 2001 and our inventory was wiped out in a week’s time,” said Gene Manweiler, owner of Manweiler Chevrolet in Hoisington, Kansas. “In 2009, we went through the stress of what GM (General Motors) dealers call Black Friday, when GM shut down 1,100 dealerships and we were afraid we would get ‘the letter.’

“But the stress of COVID-19 is double any of those stresses.”

For businesses across rural Kansas, keys to survival through 2020 include offering unique products and services, as well as a long-established presence in their communities.

For a few, known as destination businesses, their appeal is so strong that they continue to draw people in, even from outside their immediate community.

“These businesses have identified something that’s so compellingly unique that a customer says ‘this is at the top of my list,'” said Jon Schallert, who runs a workshop for potential destination businesses. “Frequently, it comes from an owner following a passion, which carries over into their employees, customers, and marketing.”

When successful, a destination business can complement a strong local presence with a regional and national customer base. And, as four business owners in remote Kansas towns have discovered this year, it can help them endure the most abrupt economic drop-off in the nation’s history.

Brant's Market in Plainville
Adam and Ashely Comeau opened a second location in Plainville, Kansas, after purchasing the original Brant’s Market location in Lucas, Kansas, in 2018. | Photo courtesy of Hays Daily News

Extending an old world recipe for success

When Ashley and Adam Comeau purchased Brant’s Market in 2018, they didn’t need to do market research into what set the butcher shop apart from the rest of the other meat markets in the country.

Brant's Market
Emily Norton, a part-time employee at the Plainville location, wraps meat for a customer. | Photo courtesy of Hays Daily News

They simply needed to take the baton from the Brant family and extend the tradition that had anchored downtown Lucas, Kansas, for 96 years.

“Our products have been enjoyed by generations of customers and while it may have started out as a very local business, as people moved away, it became a destination to return to for so many,” Ashley said. “When the Brant family announced they were going to close, a lot of people were surprised and saddened. Had it not been such a destination, however, with such history and tradition, it probably would have been just another small town business that closed its doors and never reopened.”

To their credit, the Comeaus had a lot to do extending Brant’s Market’s life. Having grown up about 45 minutes away and visited it numerous times, the two felt comfortable enough to approach the family about acquiring the business.

The initial inquiry led to several face-to-face visits, which resulted in the Brants agreeing to sell the business to the Comeaus, who headed back to Russell County after a number of years in Kansas City, Missouri. To help smooth the transition, Ashley said they kept the Brant family as involved as possible and when needed, Adam will still give previous owner Doug Brant a call to check the handiwork of new employees as they start finessing the century-old smokehouse.

Brant's Market
Adam Comeau cutting a steak in the Plainville Brant’s Market. | Photo courtesy of Hays Daily News

“Whether it’s our bologna or smoked sausages, our products will take many of our customers back in time,” Ashley said. “So we’re very careful to make sure that the original product line stays exactly the same.”

That reliability helped keep business humming through the summer of 2020, at both the original Lucas store and the second location in Plainville, Kansas, which the Comeaus opened in 2019. This, despite limited meat supplies due to COVID-19 complications at Western Kansas slaughterhouses. Nonetheless, the Lucas spot is close enough to the tourism draws such as the Garden of Eden, Grassroots Arts Center, and Wilson Lake to attract a significant number of first-time visitors, which prompted Ashley to ramp up the business’ online presence.

“It’s humbling to know the Brant family entrusted us to keep their legacy alive,” she said. “We’re always looking to innovate and stay relevant for all of our customers, but we balance that with keeping the history alive.”

Couple dancing at the Mildred Store
The music venue of the Mildred Store (pictured pre-pandemic) was quiet for a good part of 2020, but owners Regena and Loren Lance brought life back into this small Kansas community when they bought the store and started a monthly country jamboree a few years ago. | Photo by Sarai Vega

Striking a chord with community

For county music fans who’ve done Nashville, Memphis, and Branson, it’s time to hit Mildred, Kansas.

Little more than a wide spot in the road along U.S. Highway 59 in southeast Kansas, the town of fewer than 30 people is anchored by the Mildred Store. There, shoppers from a 30-mile radius rely on the grocery and general store for day-to-day needs, but on the third Saturday of each month, the spacious back room is transformed into an old-fashioned country music jamboree.

Regena and Loren Lance
Regena and Loren Lance had no retail experience, but saw a need to keep a store going to serve Mildred, Kansas. | Photo by Sarai Vega

Hosted by shop owners Regena and Loren Lance, music night drew up to 250 people, pre-pandemic. And although the back-room stage was silent between March and June, they restarted shows in July and attendance has grown steadily, while allowing for distancing.

Work the crowd, and you’re liable to run into an impressive assortment of visitors – attendees at September’s session included a young oilfield worker who’d buzzed down from North Dakota, a 78-year-old woman from Oklahoma, and an even-older gentleman who’d made the hour-and-a-half drive from Independence, Kansas.

“That’s exactly what we’re looking for – a guy who’s going to drive hundreds of miles from North Dakota to Mildred, Kansas, because he heard about it and determined he’s got to go and see what it’s all about,” Regena said.

The regular country music showcase grew out of Loren’s passion for playing the guitar, but the venue grew out of the couple’s deep roots in their hometown located a bit under two hours south of Kansas City. When the owners of then-Charlie Brown’s Grocery shut it down in 2014, one year shy of its 100-year anniversary, the Lances said they were devastated.

Mildred Store
With the next-closest grocery store being 30 miles away, the Mildred Store helps keep Allen County, Kansas, supplied with the essentials. | Photo by Sarai Vega

Although neither had any retail experience, Regena and Lance stepped up and bought the business and reopened it within weeks under its current name. In the six years since, the feedback has been overwhelming.

“I guarantee there’s not a day that’s gone by where someone’s told us, ‘We’re so glad you did this,’” Regena said. “Community is the heart of the store, in my opinion, and the only reason we’re still here is that the community supports us and we enjoy being there for them.”

The pandemic has presented challenges, especially in keeping the store stocked, although the Lances pride themselves on fulfilling specialty orders, as they’ve seen how it bolsters customer loyalty. In addition, an eight-slot RV park they opened in early 2020 has faltered as a nearby pipeline project was shelved.

“When we get discouraged and want to say forget it, which does happen once in a blue moon, seeing people come in from far away and hearing positive comments from our customers makes it all worthwhile,” Regena said.

A neon beacon on the prairie

Manweiler Chevrolet
Micah Ehler and Gene Manweiler outside the Manweiler Chevrolet building in Hoisington, Kansas. Manweiler recently sold the business – which had been in his family for more than 90 years – to Ehler. | Photo courtesy of Manweiler Chevrolet and the Great Bend Tribune

In 1998, Larry Manweiler couldn’t understand why his son, Gene, wanted to spend money on the neon sign on top of his Hoisington-based Chevrolet dealership.

The fixture hadn’t worked properly for 30 or so years and the $3,500 repair bill seemed a bit steep, especially considering it cost $1,700 to install in 1945, according to the original bill of sale still floating around the office.

“I brought him the bid to refurbish it, and he looked at me like I was really stupid,” Gene Manweiler recalled. “He asked me ‘Why spend good money on that sign?’

“I said ‘Because it is so cool.’”

When about 200 people – in a town of less than 3,000 – showed up on Main Street to see the Manweilers flip the switch on the art deco red, orange, and yellow sign, Larry finally had an inkling about Gene’s gut feeling. About 14 years later, in 2012, Manweiler Chevrolet was added to the National Historic Register, which prohibited any General Motors-mandated modifications of the display while cementing it in the lore of the U.S. Highway system.

“Our dealership is the home of the world’s largest historic Chevy neon bowtie sign housed on top of the last remaining Chevrolet dealership in a World War II-era streamlined modern art deco building,” Manweiler said. “You can’t go anywhere else and have the nostalgia that you do in this dealership.”

Standing on U.S. Highway 281, a key artery connecting Mexico and Canada, the business is regularly featured in drive-by selfies. Highlighted in a Hot Rod magazine video a few years ago, the spot is also listed as an attraction along the Wetlands & Wildlife National Scenic Byway.

While the aesthetics help draw people in, Manweiler knows that it’s the customer experience that keeps them coming back – from 16 states at last count. He proudly points to the 40-year tenure of his service manager and a number of other employees with more than 20 years at the business as keys to stoking invaluable word-of-mouth marketing.

The employee loyalty is a two-way street, as Manweiler demonstrated during the early days of the pandemic. As business withered for eight weeks, he continued to pay overtime hours to those whose shifts had been cut. As activity rebounded through the summer, sales did, too, largely to repeat customers, he said.

“I really believe employees are the key asset in the success of a family business,” Manweiler said.

The Manweiler family’s role in running the business will end at the fourth generation as Gene announced in October that he’s selling the 92-year-old business to his sales manager Micah Ehler, a 10-year employee. The dealership was renamed Ehler Chevrolet in November, and while the new owner will ensure that the sign stays lit, he said he’ll ease back on marketing the destination aspect of the business.

“It’s definitely cool and something that’s been around a long time, but I see the primary focus as being on selling, servicing, and trading vehicles,” Ehler said. “Everything we do will revolve around local customers and the people that keep the doors open.”

Re-energizing a longtime standard

At first blush, longevity seems like a prerequisite for a destination business.

Endurance alone, however, won’t keep a stream of returning patrons and newcomers coming in the door. The products and service must constantly live up to customer standards set in stone years ago, Kirk Johnson has discovered since taking over the R-B Drive In in Hutchinson, Kansas, in July 2016.

R-B Drive In - Kansas' Oldest Drive-In since 1948
Owner Kirk Johnson, who took over R-B Drive In in 2016, has heard from from patrons about their dates in the establishment 50 years ago. | Photo courtesy of R-B Drive In

“I had a couple come in that said it’s been a while since they’d been to the R-B – actually 50 years, since their first date,” Johnson said. “When I asked them ‘How was it?’ they said it tasted like that first date 50 years ago. It warms your heart to hear that, but it also validates the commitment to quality, value, and experience that I’ve made.”

Such validation completes the turn-back-the-clock experience at the oldest drive-in restaurant in the state.

“I bought this business as a good investment,” Johnson said. “As I learned about becoming a destination business, though, I adopted a broader worldview, and I learned how to distinguish it in a world full of noise while tapping the shop-local movement.”

In addition to conducting the research to confirm the state’s oldest drive-in claim, Johnson opened up the sightlines into the 790-square-foot restaurant, offering patrons the opportunity to watch the cooks and other staff at work. He also connected with local meat and produce suppliers to bolster the business’ local ties and ran a series of 12 monthly giveaways to build up its social media fanbase.

Johnson’s initial legwork helped the R-B thrive through the pandemic’s onset, as hour-long waits during the lunchtime rush were common. The success proved a double-edged sword at times as complications in the state’s meat supply chain necessitated early morning runs to a series of grocery stores, which were also facing supply constraints.

R-B Drive In
While retaining what makes R-B Drive In special to so many in Hutchinson, Kansas and the surrounding areas, Johnson has upped the establishment’s social media game and made relationships stronger with key suppliers, to keep the restaurant going through 2020. | Photo courtesy of R-B Drive-in

Generally, Johnson estimates that about one-third of his business comes from the neighborhoods surrounding his south Hutchinson location – the 50-year daters hailed from the north side – one-third falls within a 45-mile radius and the balance comes from beyond that. In 2019, he counted customers from 42 states and six other countries, and even in COVID-19-tainted 2020, the R-B had visitors from 32 states plus Italy.

Among the regulars is a rancher who regularly has business in Wichita, a 60-minute drive from his home. If he must make the trip on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, he takes a 70-minute detour to pick up some of R-B’s homemade onion rings.

“Overall, we’ve been busier this year, but customers have come from fewer states,” Johnson said.

One out-of-town couple floored Johnson earlier this year when he asked for their opinion on a shake flavor he was experimenting with: a frosted pig, featuring maple syrup and bacon.

“They tasted it and told me ‘whatever you did, don’t change it,’” Johnson said. “Turns out they were food scientists from New York who stopped in as part of a trip west to Los Angeles. That was just crazy.”

Core lessons for all businesses

Not every venture is cut out to be a destination business, but for those battling for survival, the underlying takeaway of sharpening a business’ clarity around what makes it different is worth weighing.

“Traditionally, business owners are taught to offer above-average service and selection,” Schallert said. “But by determining what makes their business one of a kind and building on those points of uniqueness, they can really stand out.”

Even in the far reaches of the Sunflower State.

“While I thoroughly enjoy this business, I didn’t invest just to have a pastime,” Johnson said. “I consider myself a caretaker of a legacy and an institution, and my goal is to make it better before I leave it.”