Freeman Foods is struggling. It’s up to the people of Wellman to save it.

By Cheryl Allen
Posted 4/19/24


If Wellman residents want to keep their neighborhood grocery store, they will have to change how they shop. Instead of stopping in occasionally when they run out of butter or when …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in


Freeman Foods is struggling. It’s up to the people of Wellman to save it.



If Wellman residents want to keep their neighborhood grocery store, they will have to change how they shop. Instead of stopping in occasionally when they run out of butter or when they’ve forgotten to buy hot dog buns when last in Iowa City, they’ll have to make Freeman Foods their primary store for grocery purchases every week. That’s what it’s going to take to keep the grocer in business.

“In 2023, we probably had our worst year we’ve ever had in business,” Clint Miller, Freeman Foods’ owner, said. “I think a big part of that was obviously inflation. People are just feeling it in their budgets, which sucks. I hate that for people.”

Miller has faced setbacks in his 10-year tenure at Freeman Foods, including competition from Dollar General, which opened in Wellman in 2021, and more significantly from Costco, which opened in Coralville in 2012.

The lockdown period due to COVID in 2020 gave the grocer a boost, but that lasted a mere six months. Since then, business has tapered down.

But until he’s forced to throw in the towel, Miller remains committed to keeping a local grocery store in Wellman and in North English. He believes in it as a community good. And if lowering prices to Walmart levels is what it takes to bring people in as regular, weekly shoppers, that is what he’ll do.

Earlier this year, Miller conducted an online survey to determine what factors dictate where the people of Wellman and North English do their grocery shopping. The overwhelming response: price.

“It didn’t used to be that way,” Miller said. “Fifteen years ago, even 10 years ago, if you’d put out that same survey, it would have been things like convenience, cleanliness, friendliness, support of your local community. All those things were ranked above price in consumer surveys. But there’s been a massive shift in consumers in the last 10 years, and now number one is price, number two is price, and number three is price.

“For a little guy like me, who’s the smallest of the small, that’s where it really puts a bunch of pressure on me,” he continues. “Competing pricewise is super hard. I don’t have the natural volume that a big box store is going to have in a bigger community. When you’re so small, you don’t have the volume. It’s really hard to lower prices to be competitive.”

But Miller has decided he must do the hard thing if he’s going to give the store its best last chance. He spent weeks going through his entire inventory and has lowered the prices on almost everything to rock-bottom, as shoppers can see by the prolific purple signage dotting every shelf. To do that, he’s had to purchase in massive quantities, ordering things like Oreos by the pallet.

It's a gutsy move he calls a “leap of faith.”

“Yeah, that’s where the leap of faith comes in,” he said. “I’m doing the lowering first and hoping that the volume comes. I hope that the communities really respond to this and realize that, ‘Okay, I’m going to shop locally. I know there are prices [at Freeman Foods] that are just as good as what I’m going to get anywhere else now.’ Hopefully they buy into that.”

Baking mixes, laundry detergent, produce, and alcohol, in addition to the aforementioned Oreos, have all seen their prices cut so that they match or beat Walmart.

“I’m not just taking 10 or 15 cents off this stuff,” Miller noted, “I’m literally taking dollars off of stuff and getting it down as low as I possibly can so that I can be as competitive as I possibly can.”

Miller has also made an effort to bring in a diversity of goods not typically stocked by small town grocers; yellow dragon fruit and cactus pears are currently lined up neatly in the produce section, for example.

This risk and effort are not self-serving; Miller could always find another job or buy another business, he said.

“My goal with this entire thing was to get prices down as low as I possibly can so that there really is no excuse for people not to support the grocery store,” he said. “I just want to make it as affordable as possible for people to still have a store in their community.”

As someone who grew up near Wellman and has been embraced in North English, he loves these communities.

“I know how important a grocery store is for the two communities, and I just want to give them every opportunity to keep that,” he said.

More than groceries

Freeman Foods does more for the communities it serves than provide a place to restock the pantry.

It provides jobs: each store employs 20 people, five full-time and 15 part-time.

It contributes to the tax base: thousands of dollars each year are paid to the City of Wellman in local option sales tax, which has been and will be used to fund myriad projects, including a new emergency siren for the city, signage directing traffic on Hwy 22 to downtown businesses, and water system upgrades.

It supports the Wellman Community Club, which organizes free activities for the community, which include July 4 fireworks, Trunk or Treat, and skating parties.

It donates to area school and church groups.

“I constantly have people coming in here wanting donations for this and that, and I always try to help them out,” Miller said. “That’s important to me. That’s one of the nice things about being a local grocer: I know the people I’m helping.”

And it draws people to the community, a marker of livability.

When people consider moving to a new town, Miller said, the first thing they look at is the school district, and the second thing is area businesses, “number one being a grocery store.” The grocer draws traffic into an area, and “then other businesses can feed off of that.” If the grocery store fails, “that seems to be kind of a marker that the town is going to trend downward from there. Other businesses are going to struggle a little more.”

Small store advantages

Shopping at Freeman Foods also has advantages over visiting big box stores. You can park right outside the door and need not spend time traversing large parking lots. You can navigate the store, make selections without being overwhelmed by choices, and fill your cart with groceries for the week in just 15 minutes, as Miller has observed. A friendly cashier will check you out without a long line or need for you to do it yourself. And your groceries can even be carried out to your car for you if you wish.

You may even run into a friend or neighbor and enjoy a chat during your shop, satisfying your need for connection and alleviating loneliness.

Midnight Madness

Prices have already been marked down in both store locations, but to officially kickoff the newly affordable Freeman Foods, the stores are having Midnight Madness events on Friday, April 26 from 10 p.m. to midnight.

Even early birds will be motivated to become night owls for this evening, as a TV will be given away at each location, as well as gift cards valued up to $500. Someone will win a 1-minute shopping spree, and grilling bundles will be given away. That’s in addition to deals and specials on products.

Miller is hopeful that the communities will turn out to support their local grocery stores. With his bold pricing strategy, he is satisfied that he has done everything he possibly can to keep the stores open in Wellman and North English; now it’s our turn to demonstrate that the viability of Freeman Foods is important to us.

“I’m very optimistic that the town is going to realize that having a store in town is important to them, and they’re going to become personally invested in making that happen,” Miller said. “It’s time to not hope that your neighbor makes it happen. You need to make a personal investment in your community and decide, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make this happen.’ That’s what it’s going to take for this place to be here five, 10, 20 years from now.

“It’s going to take the community saying, ‘We want this. We know you’re doing everything you can to make it happen. We’re going to do everything we can to keep it also.’”

Freeman Foods, Wellman, Iowa, grocery store