TAKING STOCK: From hot dogs to hamburgers, these small town grocers are ready to serve the masses

BENZIE COUNTY – They can’t quite boast a million items in one store, but what small town grocery stores may lack in volume, they more than make up for in service.

“We quickly learned that you don’t stock things based on your own tastes, you stock what your customers want,” explained John Nuske, who owns Lake Ann Grocery with his wife Sandy.

From ostrich burgers to pet food to gourmet B-B-Q sauce, you can find what you need at Lake Ann Grocery, one of a few small town grocery stores left that stock just about everything.

Despite the town’s sparse population, John and Sandy bought the century-old building–which once housed the post office–in 1980, and opened Lake Ann Grocery four years later.

“Some people thought we were a little crazy to open a store across from another store in a town of 200 people,” John said, with a laugh.

But perseverance has paid off and Lake Ann Grocery has grown to be an important part of the village’s livelihood.

During lunch hours, the old wood floors creak from the steady stream of customers pouring into the store.

“We never sat down and decided what we were going to sell,” John said. “We listen to our customers and try to have what they want. If one person requests something, we’ll do our best to get it. We pride ourselves on friendly, personal service.”

After some 20 years in the center of the village, John and Sandy know just about everyone. They’ve seen the Lake Ann area transform from a sleepy little hamlet to the fastest-growing area in Benzie County.

“The growth has been phenomenal; it seems like one day there’s a field and the next it’s a subdivision. Then came a new golf course, an improved township park and the new elementary school,” John said.

That growth has been good for business, and resulted in a store addition in ’96. It also meant an increase in products, including a line of fishing tackle, a large variety of hardware goods and more gourmet sauces, including over 12 kinds of mustard and 10 different types of spaghetti sauces. Another popular item is the convenience foods to go, especially at lunchtime, including hot dogs, brats, polish sausage, warm buns and all the fixings.

At the East Shore Market in downtown Beulah, just a stone’s throw from the shores of Crystal Lake, lunch is also a busy time. Nels and Karen Nelson purchased the store in 1992 and continued the tradition of a small town market, which had been at that same location since it was built in 1878. Their focus began as a small health food outlet and has evolved over the years into a first-class deli, known for their homemade bread, fresh meat and cheese, pasta salads and soups in the winter.

They carry a wide variety of grocery items, from staples like milk and sugar, to hard-to-find items like fresh herbs, over 200 kinds of wine, and all the ingredients to make sushi at home.

“At first, people were reluctant to try a new business,” explained Nels. “The first few years we lost money, but we’ve also seen the business grow each year and now people seek us out. We’re also a lot smarter now about what items we stock.”

East Shore Market, like Lake Ann Grocery, prides themselves on being a place for the locals. Both businesses stay open year around, and offer specials during the off season.

“We appreciate the tourists and their business, but we never wanted to be a tourist thing,” Nels said. “We were hopeful there were enough local people to support us. We looked at what our friends needed in the area but couldn’t find, and we kind of went from there.”

The catering business has also grown for East Shore Market, including some out-of-the-way locations, like a formal dinner for 50 at the top of Pierce Stocking Drive in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park.

“We just hauled everything out there and set up,” Nels explained, “Except for the wind, it turned out well.”

Between the daily lunch crowd and catering events, Nels and Karen average 60-hour weeks and are grateful for the staff who fluctuate with them on the seasonal nature of the area.

“We have great people working here; we are very fortunate in that respect,” Nels said.