PLATTSMOUTH, Neb. — Terry Stoll pushed a shopping cart through Steube’s Thriftway last week, filling it with carrots, brown sugar and cake mix.
She and others stopped by not just to shop, but to say farewell.
For more than six decades a small grocery has stood near downtown Plattsmouth, with Don Steube owning it for 42 of those years. But the store closed for good Saturday, marking the end of a business that has served generations of people in the Cass County community of 6,500.
Now a No Frills and Hy-Vee remain, and Steube’s Thriftway couldn’t keep up.
Steube’s store was a community hub. A place to run into neighbors, learn about the birth of the baby or an old friend who’s in the hospital. It’s a place where high school kids got their first job, and where parents would take their children to ride the mechanical horse — for a penny — or get free popcorn and ice cream during the summer “circus sales” promotions. Steube even joined the community’s fall festival parade in recent years, pulling a giant shopping cart behind a tractor.
Such stores are fading away. Twenty-five years ago Nebraska had about 1,200 locally owned independent grocers like Steube’s, but the count has fallen to roughly 500 as the stores face more competition from chains, dwindling populations or both, said Kathy Siefken, executive director of Nebraska Grocery Industry Association.
“It’s very difficult for the independents to compete with the larger stores that buy on volume,’’ she said. “It’s a very tight market.”
Steube, who has worked in the grocery industry for six decades, said his store didn’t have enough customers to stay open, and competition was a big reason. He said a No Frills Supermarket that has operated for more than 15 years didn’t pull customers away, but a Hy-Vee that opened about five years ago in Plattsmouth has been tough on his business.
Siefken said it’s likely that Steube’s grocery didn’t just face competition from the chains in Plattsmouth. There was also competition from chains in larger nearby communities such as Bellevue and Omaha.
Steube’s store was known for its quality service, with clerks who walked groceries to your car. It sat across from the former community center and a gas station, just a block from downtown. The grocery’s long front window last week was still decorated with spring-themed cartoon figures, including a golfer and man pushing a wheelbarrow.
Inside, shelves were half empty because of the going-out-of business sale, but you could still find plenty of items, like milk, soup and spaghetti sauce, plus dog food, automobile oil and light bulbs.
The 78-year-old Steube grew up in the Norfolk, Nebraska, area and started working at a Safeway grocery in that community when he was 18. He later worked at Nebraska grocery stores in Fremont and Lincoln before he became manager of a supermarket in York at age 27.
The chain that owned the store told him not to tell anyone his age because the company had a practice of not making anyone younger than 30 a manager.
He later moved to Plattsmouth and purchased the grocery — a Hinky Dinky at the time — and opened it in 1976.
In the early years, he worked from opening to close because there was so much to be done. Later his three children all worked at the store and his son, Tim, did until the end.
Stoll, the woman making her last shopping trip to the store, grew up in Plattsmouth and said the market is filled with memories. The store is where she bought turkeys for Thanksgiving, hamburger for Memorial Day barbecues and cake mixes for countless birthdays for her five children.
“I feel like it’s part of me,’’ she said.
Among the items she bought were packages of dye for decorating Easter eggs with her grandchildren. She said she wanted to purchase something she can use for years so she can keep her memories of the store alive.
She stayed loyal to the store because Steube was loyal to Plattsmouth. She said she knows it’s not easy running a small business, and she appreciated how Steube gave back to the community.
Plattsmouth Mayor Paul Lambert said Steube was known for being generous to community fundraisers. For example, every year he donated all the ingredients for the Plattsmouth High School band’s annual pancake feed.
“He’s always been there ready to help in any way he could,” Lambert said. “He was a true citizen businessman.”
Steube, who plans to fish and spend more time with his grandson in retirement, said he’s grateful for such a long run in the grocery business. And he appreciates all the support the Plattsmouth community has shown his store.
Shoppers visiting the grocery for the last time would have seen the big sign long displayed near the checkout lanes. Steube said the sign expressed his appreciation to customers, particularly at the end: “Thanks for shopping Steube’s.”