DJ and Lindy Schmidt know how hard it is to own a small-town grocery.
The Schmidts both quit their jobs and opened The Market in Louisville in December 2019, just a few months before COVID-19 hit.
"It was wild," said DJ, who recalled ordering toilet paper by the pallet load to try to meet demand.
Even without a global pandemic complicating things, running grocery stores, especially small ones, is a tough business. There's the extremely thin margins. And the shrinking customer base.
"It's a hard business," Lindy said. "Anything retail is hard."
Nonetheless, The Market was successful enough that the Schmidts started thinking about expansion. Last year, they were scouting around for possible locations when they stumbled across one.
"DJ had actually found the store in Peru," Lindy said.
On a whim, they drove to Peru one day to talk to the owners, not realizing the store had gone out of business.
But they got lucky. The owner happened to be there the day they visited, and the couple found out he had tried to sell the store for months before closing but couldn't find any takers.
They talked it over and decided to ask if he'd be willing to sell and what price he was seeking.
After a bit of back and forth, they settled on a price and closed on the sale last November.
After a lot of hard work and a few setbacks, the Schmidts are now ready to open their location in Peru, a small Nemaha County town about 70 miles southeast of Lincoln that is home to Peru State College.
Opening day is scheduled for Thursday, and Lindy expects to be busy.
Peru residents have been "curious" about the store, she said, stopping by several times while she and DJ were working on it over the past few months.
"They're excited. They can't wait," she said.
It's the community excitement and support that have the Schmidts feeling good about their decision.
Peru is like many Nebraska towns that have seen small, independently owned grocers close over the past few years, joining the likes of Bayard, Eagle, Ravenna and West Point.
In some cases, they were replaced by dollar stores or grocery chains. In others, the closing left their town with no grocery options.
It's a national trend, with nearly 40% of the grocery stores in non-metro counties in the U.S. shutting down from 1990-2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Peru is one of the lucky few to get another independent operator to open up shop.
The Schmidts liken the situation in Peru to what happened in Louisville, where they stepped in to open a store in their community because the existing one was planning to close and they didn't want to be without a local grocery.
They had some experience — Lindy worked in the consumer packaged goods industry and the couple had run a company that delivered fresh fruits and vegetables.
"But we didn't just wake up one day and say, 'Let's open a grocery store,'" she said.
"We were just members of the community that were sad about the grocery store closing."
In Peru, DJ said he sees parallels to Louisville.
"It's already something that the community wants, and they know what happens if it goes away," he said.
Lindy called the store "kind of like the heart of the community."
The Schmidts said the store, which has about 3,500 square feet of space, will be similar to the one in Louisville. It will have fresh produce and a meat counter with a butcher. It also will sell rotisserie chickens, which are a sought-after item in Louisville.
They also plan to stock items from local vendors, something they do at the Louisville store that's very popular.
When customers walk into the Peru store, they'll see the charm of a small mom-and-pop store but with an updated feel and modern conveniences, the Schmidts said.
Even though The Market will be the only game in town — the closest grocery store is 10 miles away in Auburn, and the closest Walmart is 20 miles away in Nebraska City — the couple knows they will have to work to get and keep customers.
That doesn't mean offering the lowest prices, but it does mean providing the best customer service available.
"We can't beat Walmart on the price of pretty much anything, but we can beat them on customer service," Lindy said.
The Schmidts also say they can endear themselves to customers by becoming a part of the community. That's easier to do in Louisville, the Cass County community where they live and where their kids go to school, than in Peru, where people don't yet know them.
But getting to know the residents is going to be a priority.
For at least the first several months, they plan to split time between the Peru and Louisville stores as the employees they have hired get up to speed.
Several of those employees have full-time jobs with benefits thanks to a Community Development Block Grant the Schmidts received.
The grocery store is just one of several projects Peru has undertaken or has plans to pursue using federal and state disaster funds that have flowed to the county and town.
Much of that money has gone to projects related to repairing damage from the 2019 flooding, including constructing a new water line between Peru and Auburn, reopening the Steamboat Trace Trail, repairing one of the town's main streets, and repairing a breach in a levee along the Missouri River.
“We want to celebrate the movement on these flood-related projects,” said Deborah Solie, disaster recovery coordinator for the Northeast Nemaha Long Term Recovery Group, one of several volunteer groups formed around Nebraska in the wake of the flooding.
But she also pointed out there is still a lot of work to do, noting Peru experienced nearly $8 million in economic losses from the flooding.
"The LTRG’s goal is to emerge from recovery as a community stronger than before the floods," she said. "We have begun focusing on disaster preparedness as part of that recovery.”
The Schmidts are happy that they can play a role in that recovery.
"At the end of the day, we want small communities to thrive and we want them to stay around," Lindy Schmidt said.