Villa Grove grocery to open next week

VILLA GROVE — Homer grocer Rick Bates plans to open a store in Villa Grove next week, replacing the Villa Grove Market, which closed in late October.

Bates said the new store, Rick's Country Market, is targeting an opening between Jan. 16 and 18.

For nearly 12 years, Bates has operated the Homer Country Market in Homer.

After the Villa Grove Market closed, the Longview State Bank contacted him to see if he was interested in buying the store's inventory — and Bates ended up deciding to lease the building at 10 E. Harrison St. for a grocery.

Last week he was stocking the store with dry goods. This week he plans to bring in dairy and frozen products, followed by meat and produce.

Bates said he expects the store to employ about 15. He's still hiring a few part-time cashiers and baggers but won't start out with a lot of employees.

"I'll be there a lot myself, and if business dictates, I'll increase the staff," he said.

He plans to operate the store from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, closing only on Christmas.

Originally from Tolono, Bates has been in the grocery business for 38 years, starting out at Mitchell's Eisner agency store in Tolono and later at Gus and John Maggio's IGA in Tolono.

In 1985, Stan Cato and Larry Throneburg acquired that store, and in 2000, Bates bought the Homer store from Cato and Throneburg.

The Villa Grove store is about 10,000 square feet — about twice the size of the Homer store. It will be supplied by Winkler Wholesale Grocers of Dale, Ind., he said.

In recent years, the Villa Grove grocery has operated under a series of owners and names, including Villa Grove IGA, Villa Grove Foods and Villa Grove Market. The last version lasted for a little less than a year.

Bates said he chose the "Rick's" name "to personalize it a little bit."

He said he expects to change the name of the Homer store to Rick's Country Market eventually so the two stores can market themselves together.

"I've been interested in another store for quite some time," Bates said. "But the right opportunity hadn't come along, or someone beat me to the punch."

Based on his experience as a small-town grocer, Bates said he's identified some rules for success, among them:

— You have to be friendly.

— You have to offer customer service.

— Meat and produce need to be fresh as can be.

— It's important to keep store hours and employee shifts consistent so customers see "the same faces, day in and day out."

— You have to put in lots of hours and a lot of hard work. "You may not be able to take a vacation for a couple years," he said.

Bates said the grocery business has changed in the 12 years he's owned a store. There's a wider selection of outlets selling groceries, including Menards and Lowes, and there are more "supercenters" than ever.

"It's a hard business right now," he said. "People think if you're farther out (from competitors in Champaign-Urbana), you're better off. But most people in Villa Grove and Homer work in Champaign-Urbana."

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