When Jim Bob and Jodi Watkins decided to buy Glen’s Feed Store in Burns, they saw it as an opportunity to diversify their farm and ranch operation a few miles from town.
That’s still the goal, but the couple recognize the business has come to mean much more than that—to them, but also to the people who live in or near the community of 230 or so people in the southeast corner of the county.
“There were a lot of people who were glad to see it stay,” said Jodi, who works part-time at the store in addition to her accounting job in El Dorado.
As one of the few businesses still operating in Burns, Glen’s Feed Store has become more than an outlet for quality feed and minerals for cattle and horses. It’s become a source of economic hope for the town and a gathering place for friends and neighbors.
The Watkinses took that into account, too.
“One of the determining factors is that we don’t have a restaurant open here during the week anymore,” Jim Bob said, referring to the popular Burns Cafe, which caters to its clientele on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings.
“There’s not a lot of draw on Burns anymore,” he added. “The tire store has struggled—we’ve got a new guy that’s going there now.
“Most mornings I’ve probably got six or eight guys in here to play dominoes—and maybe do a little illegal gambling,” he added as a joke.
Jodi said, “We always make sure there’s coffee going first thing in the morning. They come in, play dominoes and just talk.”
The couple have come to like the niche the store fills.
“It is a gathering place,” Jim Bob said. “Of course, we have a really nice community building, and the senior citizens gather over there. For the 80-year-old guys who don’t want to be classified as senior citizens, this is where they gather to drink coffee and try to remember ‘old what’s his name.’
“We didn’t want to see that die,” he added. “Who knows, a lot of these towns may not be here 20 years from now.”
A decision delayed
The sale closed Nov. 1 of last year, but the couple had been in conversation for five years or so with the former owner, Glen Strotkamp.
“Glen had some health trouble over the years and was ready to sell at different times,” Jim Bob. “Then, they’d get him straightened out, and we’d just kind of put (the sale) on the back burner.”
Strotkamp’s health took a turn for the worse in the last months of 2011; he died of cancer Dec. 11.
“Unfortunately, he passed away shortly after we bought it,” Jim Bob said. “He knew this time it was real.”
After the sale, Strotkamp came into the store one least time to play a game of dominoes.
“I wish we had gotten a picture of that,” Jim Bob said. “But that was about all he could take.”
In one sense, Glen’s Feed Store continues as a tribute to Strotkamp.
“We’re going to leave it the same name, and kind of operate it the same way it has been in the past,” Jim Bob said.
That means depending on the honesty and loyalty of customers. When Jim Bob is managing the farming operation and Jodi is crunching numbers in El Dorado, the honor system is the golden rule.
“Even when I’m here, the system’s always been the yellow pad,” Jim Bob said. “(Customers) back their trucks in here, and if I’m here I’ll help them load it. But then they’ll go in and write down what they’ve got, and sign for it.
“This business runs a little bit different than most businesses,” he added. “But my guys sitting here playing dominoes are watching over the place. It’s not going to be a free-for-all.”
Growing the business
Though the Watkinses value the laid-back heritage of Glen’s Feed Store, make no mistake: The couple are intent on growing a modern, successful business.
Jodi has overseen a transition to electronic billing through Sowder Seed Co., in Toronto, Kan., which supports the business in a variety of ways.
“We own the facility here, but we’re in partnership with Sowder Seed,” Jim Bob said. “A lot of the inventory (at the store) is his inventory. So we do have a lot in stock at all times because I don’t have the outlay of cash to do that on my own.”
While the beloved former owner was content to wait for customers to come in on their own, Jim Bob has hit the roads to talk to current and potential clients about the resources the business offers.
“We felt like, well, if we can buy the blue sky he’s got, then I can go out and visit other people,” he said. “I like driving to their places, dropping in and seeing what they might need or might be missing in their operation—without getting too nosy.”
The couple also have been organizing informational meetings to introduce area farmers and ranchers to new products.
But new sales are hardly automatic, Jim Bob said.
“I’ve always been a seller—whether it was machinery or whatnot,” he said. “But in the feed business, there’s a lot more rejection. You’ve got to get used to it. You’ve got 50 guys you want to go see, and if you come home with one that said yes that day, you’re good.
“Feed’s a hard sale, because they say, ‘We’ve been doing it this way since Dad and Grandpa have been doing it—now you’re wanting us to buy this high-dollar product?’”
Jodi said old-style social networking is the key to sales.
“I think it’s just going to some time,” she said. “If you get a few people on a new product, and they start talking to other people who feed cattle…. It’s going to take a little word of mouth to promote the product.”
Heritage of hard work
Jim Bob is no stranger to the feed business. His parents operated a store on their farm south of Burns until Jim Bob was 12 years old or so.
“In a way I always wished that we hadn’t sold it, but there were reasons unbeknownst to me,” he said. “But there was always something about that (looking) attractive.”
Jim Bob said his father initially advised against him buying the Burns store.
“Now, my dad is indirectly involved—sort of in and out,” he said. “Now that we’re in it, he’s seen these things have changed a lot since the early ’80s.”
With a custom-farming operation and other involvements, Jim Bob said some people have wondered if he was taking on too much.
“I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire,” he admitted. “I don’t know that it’s going to be a big glamorous, fun deal. But it was something we wanted to try. Who knows?”
Added Jodi: “Well, with Jim Bob, he’s never afraid to jump in and try something.”