OTTERTAIL, Minn. — As many businesses are dying out in rural communities across the Midwest, Dan and Marnie Whitehead found a recipe to make a profit.

In 2014, instead of retiring from their jobs involved in graphic design and data protection, the Twin Cities couple decided to buy the Williams Company Store & Deli in Ottertail, about 40 miles northeast of Fergus Falls. Although the road hasn’t been easy, they've turned the 100-year-old building into a success.

“One thing I have learned is that nothing is a sure thing, everything is a risk and you can bring that to all walks of life,” Dan said. “You really have to believe in what you’re doing and be as wise about all your decisions as possible.”

He knew the risks of investing in a rural town of approximately 600 people, but he and his wife focused on bringing healthy foods into the store’s deli.

Winter business pays the bills, but summers are when the store turns a profit selling deli items, coffee, vacation wear, home decor and gifts, all of which can be enjoyed in a small patio area, Dan said.

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A poster for Williams Company Store & Deli in Ottertail, Minn. Special to The Forum
A poster for Williams Company Store & Deli in Ottertail, Minn. Special to The Forum

“You really have to keep up on trends and how you balance your business,” Dan said. “We don’t have the one thing here; we try to make it more of an experience… that’s what we strive for, a friendly atmosphere.”

The business existed before the Whiteheads bought it, but Dan said they have grown areas they thought they could get better margins on, and planned for inventory that they could turn over quickly.

“That took time, figuring that out,” Dan said.

The Whitehead family is not from Ottertail area originally, but years ago purchased a lake house and fell in love with the region. He was worried that his business model wouldn’t be accepted by the locals.

“When I made the changes, that’s the risk also, you got customers here are coming in, and the majority of people don’t like change,” Dan said. “We had folks coming and saying, ‘Gee, you’re changing things around, and you don’t do this, and don’t carry this, and why not?’

“My menu, a lot of it is freezer to oven, and if it wasn’t that way I wouldn’t make it,” Dan said. “I couldn’t keep up with that demand. Fresh foods is the same way. It has to move. If it doesn’t move, it goes in the garbage and then everyone loses on that.”

The Dollar Store, Walmart, Costco and other retail giants have hurt small rural businesses, Dan said. A business-minded person has to look for what an area needs and then keep up with the ever-changing technology.

“I won’t step a foot into Walmart. I’m not against them, but why would I do that?” Dan said.

Katrina Mouser, a dietitian with PartnerShip 4 Health, a collaboration of community and public health partners in Becker, Clay, Otter Tail and Wilkin counties, said she has worked closely with the Whitehead family.

Their secret?

“It’s because of the owners and their willingness to take a risk and go somewhere different, especially in a rural area,” Mouser said. “This is kind of a menu you can expect in an urban area, and they’re creating new recipes, using different methods to highlight local ingredients, and they use produce from a local farm down the road.

“They really went against the flow in their menu, no bar food and they never owned a restaurant before," she added. "It was a successful business they bought, they bought good bones, a good location, but they have changed the type of items they offer. Their deli now has contributed more to their overall profit and income, when it used to be just a small portion of the pie.”

The bottom line is what business owners worry about, while Mouser focuses on improving community health and access to local foods.

“They took the risk,” Mouser said. “There is a trend now and healthy foods are not such a risk, it is becoming part of the mainstream. What you eat does have an effect on your health. If you don’t add these products, someone else will and they will benefit from that.”

The Williams Company Store & Deli is open nine months of the year, and is typically closed in January before resuming part-time hours until the first week of April and then regular hours the rest of the year.