Minong Grocery Store Owner Talks Wild Demand, Price Gouging, Summer Tourism Concerns

Owner Rob Henson believes snowbirds, cabin owners have all flocked to the area months earlier than usual because of the coronavirus outbreak

MINONG, Wis. – Small-town grocery stores are getting slammed with unusual demand amid the coronavirus outbreak. And for one grocery owner in Minong, there’s a fear there won’t be enough inventory out there to be stocked up for summer tourism season — a time that carries many small businesses through the slow winter months.

“I don’t think anybody is prepared for something like this. We certainly weren’t,” said Rob Henson, owner of Henson’s Country Foods in Minong. “I think people are scared. I think people are scared.”

Henson’s Country Foods has been a fixture in Minong since the 1980s.  And Henson’s business right now is comparable to his busiest time of the year — the 4th of July holiday.

FOX 21’s Dan Hanger has more with Henson, the concern of price-gouging and the challenges ahead for the grocery store.

“I’ll show you the toilet paper section. It’s Incredible — never seen anything like it,” Henson said.

There’s no toilet paper left. The egg shelves are empty and it’s hard to keep stock of milk, frozen goods and meat.

“Where’s all this business coming from,” asked Hanger.  “It’s not coming from Minong. That’s all I can tell you. It’s not coming from Minong,” Henson said.

Henson says locals are stocking up and people are traveling from places like South Superior to get what they need, but he believes snowbirds are coming back early and people in the Twin Cities and even Illinois who have cabins in the Minong area are back earlier than ever because of coronavirus fears.

“When Evers had the shutdown where nobody could come – all locked down – they were already here at that point. That was probably a week late,” Henson said.

The amount of business Henson has been experiencing the last two-and-a-half weeks is comparable to the 4th of July weekend — his bread and butter holiday that he would normally be getting stocked up for now.

“Are you worried about the 4th of July,” asked Hanger.  “I am worried,” Henson said.

He’s worried because orders from suppliers are being canceled, which means a loss of sales during that one time a year that helps float the business through the slower winter.

“I’ve never had to deal with limits on how much I can buy,” Henson explained.

And Henson also hasn’t had to deal with emotions during a global pandemic like a Facebook post where he was accused of price gouging a bundle of 18 mega rolls of toilet paper for $22.49 — a price he says came directly from the supplier, and the only toilet paper he could find to have on his shelf, compared to his normal $4.99 generic rolls.

“I would never carry that any other time. It was the only thing I could buy,” Henson said. “18 rolls equals 72 regular rolls. So you take the price, $22.49 divided by 72 – comes out to 32 cents. I’m never trying to gouge anybody. I don’t want that thought out there because that’s just not who I am. That’s not who our family is.”

Meanwhile, as Henson takes one day at a time his cashiers and manager are doing everything they can to be at work and keep the store as safe as possible for everybody.

“We wear gloves, we sanitize a lot, if we want to wear a masks, we can do that,” said Joy Pierce, manager at Henson’s Country Foods.” This is kind of hard to wrap your head around because it’s so much bigger then here. It’s crazy.”

But at the same time, there’s a sense of optimism in the small-town community of 500 people that’s helping keep the calm with the thought of brighter days ahead.

“It’s just a matter of not panicking and going nuts,” said Jane Little, a longtime resident of Minong.

“Everybody in Minong, you know everybody. It is what it is and you try to do the best you can and that’s all you can do,” Henson said.

And because inventory from suppliers is uncertain right now, Henson has canceled his popular meat sale in May — something that’s been going on at the grocery story since 1986.

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