107-year-old Pennsylvania family store describes challenges for mom-and-pop shops: ‘Fighting to keep going’
Centermoreland Grocery & Deli is a small, family-owned general store in the heart of its namesake town – Centermoreland, Pennsylvania.
With a local consumer base that barely squeaks into the hundreds and a business model that stretches back more than a century, the Centermoreland Grocery & Deli is among the smallest of small businesses and is as “locally owned and operated” as it gets.
Owners Alan and Sharlene Weidner bought the store in 2010 with little experience running a business on their own.
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They had big shoes to fill.
The building they operate out of has been a family-owned store since at least 1915. Vintage advertisements on the wall date back to when it operated under the name Chas. S. Besteder, a “dealer in general merchandise” with the motto “Full measure, full weight, full value.”
The Weidners say that before Besteder, it had been a community post office. Before the post office, the history gets muddier despite the Weidners’ shoeboxes of vintage photographs and snapshots of the store through time, provided by locals.
As much as they love their shop, taking over a storefront that’s been in operation since horses and buggies drove through town has not been an easy endeavor.
Alan worked at Offset Paperback, a local book manufacturer, for 40 years before diving into the business. His work was so high-impact and physically demanding that over the years the nerves in his extremities began to die. Now, he has no feeling in his feet and not much at all in his hands.
He escaped the physically punishing line of work when he and Sharlene dumped approximately $300,000 into kick-starting the store back up after buying from the previous owner.
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The financial headaches began before they even bought the building.
“I don’t know how we ended up with a bank out in California,” Sharlene recalls. “It was a little hard to work with. We ended up with a small business loan, but they were out in California, so time-wise it was a little off. So a lot of paperwork back and forth.”
Asked how he’s managed to transition from plant employee to expert delicatessen, Alan says learning the skills wasn’t too difficult – though he had some help.
“Just common sense, a lot of it, you know. And I was training here before – I was coming in with [the previous store owners] so I can get it right,” Alan recalled.
The Weidners bought the store from local businessman Frank Lawrence, who served the community and oversaw the shop for decades. Lawrence came into the business through his wife, Janice, whose family owned the store before him.
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When Lawrence was feeling ready to retire from the store, the Weidners were ready to buy.
“We changed a lot of stuff in a lot of ways,” Alan said. “Cleaned it up and that brought people back.”
Centermoreland itself is nestled within Northmoreland Township in Wyoming County. The entire population of the township barely surpasses 1,400 residents, according to the 2020 census.
The small scale of the store and its hyper-localized customer base are some of its strongest assets, the Weidners say.
While the mom-and-pop duo cannot offer the vast selections of snacks and pre-packaged food that modern supermarkets can, they have their regulars’ staples down to a science – coffee, milk, bread, pastries, lottery tickets, drinks to go, nicotine products, pet food, and more.
Most alluring, however, is the Centermoreland Grocery & Deli’s homemade meals, which rotate throughout the week and are made just a few steps away in a back kitchen.
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The store offers a wide, ever-changing rotation of homemade meals: stromboli, pizza, chicken wings, pot pies, kielbasa and more. Desserts include fruit pies, apple bars, cakes, chocolate cookies, and whatever else Sharlene decides to put together, usually scribbled on a small whiteboard at the checkout.
The food is all made in-house and sold at low profit margins – reminiscent of the cheap, locally-made food Sharlene says she misses from community church events and fire department potlucks that have become increasingly rare.
That is, in some ways, the secret to the Centermoreland store’s success. The outside world changes and average consumer expectations shift, but the Weidners are committed to maintaining the same style of shop that has existed in the building since 1915.
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A lot of the job is just being there for a conversation early in the morning as the commuters are off to work. Blue collar and white collar alike, Alan makes sure to shoot the breeze with anyone who walks in – something that keeps a lot of them coming back.
Store employee Alicia Sickler, 29, told Fox News Digital that you can tell when times are good and when times are hard in Northmoreland by the regulars’ adjustments to their spending habits.
“You know, we have our regulars who used to come buy lottery tickets and a soda. Now it’s one or the other. And that’s one of the little things that you don’t really think about,” Sickler said. “This is nothing glamorous, right? It’s just hard work out here.”
She may not be related to the Weidners by blood, but she still refers to them as her grandparents.
“You get up every day. Come here. Grandma gets up at 3 in the morning. She’s here. She’s serving coffee by 6 a.m.,” Sickler said.
As far as politics are concerned, the Weidners keep their opinions to themselves.
“We don’t get involved in too much in that,” Alan said.
“We don’t talk politics in the store,” Sharlene affirmed, chuckling.
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The closest the couple gets to talking politics is looking back on the coronavirus, when they risked losing everything with plummeting sales and a total disruption of their usual routine.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the store stayed open and in full compliance with state regulations. With the insanity the outbreak, the postponement of in-person office visits, and unclear messaging from the government, the Weidners never managed to get a cent of help keeping the lights on.
“It kind of stunk during the whole COVID thing that all those people got help and we just put our lives out there and didn’t get anything for it,” Sharlene said. “We were here every day, wore the mask.”
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“It could very much be my own fault,” she freely admits. The Weidners never applied for help from local, state or federal authorities – not because they didn’t need it, but because they had no idea where to start or who to trust.
“You hear about all this stuff, but is it for real?” Alan said of the confusion trying to find help during the pandemic. “There’s so many scams – you gotta be careful.”
The store is filled to the brim with authentic, vintage memorabilia of small town American life, from a Radio Flyer wagon to the fixed-gear bike Sharlene rode as a child.
“They have this little gaming table or something […] and the guy who comes in here wants to put one in here,” Sharlene said, describing the games of chance that occupy the corners of dive bars throughout rural Pennsylvania. “We don’t want that kind of business.
Alan added, “No, we want, you know… I’d rather see a whole barrel of pickles sitting somewhere in the corner. You know what I mean?”
The Weidners don’t foresee themselves giving up the store anytime soon, though dozens have offered to buy it from them over the years.
When it does trade hands, Alan insists that it go to someone interested in maintaining its tiny presence and small-town operations. In a world of globalized companies and international conglomerates, the Weidners want to keep the business small.
“There is still some mom-and-pop stores, they’re fighting to keep going. They are there…” Alan told Fox News Digital.
He paused before finishing the somber thought, “…less and less.”