Keeping it in the family is important for the Bontragers.
The owners of Main Street Market, Craig and Karen Bontrager, plan to expand their store next year.
They purchased the former Subway Motors property at the corner of Highway 6 and First Street in Milford.
Family was a big part of that business, too.
The automotive sales and repair business was in the Hoppe family for more than 50 years.
It was purchased by Roger Hoppe in 1972 and passed to his son, Rod, when he retired.
A fire last May caused the business to close, and the Bontragers saw an opportunity to not only buy the property but to keep the dream of a family owned, family run business alive.
“We want to build, but land is hard to come by,” Craig Bontrager said.
When Hoppe decided to sell, he was approached by Runza, which has a drive-thru only restaurant across the street.
“But Rod, bless his heart, wanted to keep it local,” Craig said.
The Bontragers plan to tear down the fire-damaged building and construct a new one in its place.
The design of the building will pay homage to Karen’s Pennsylvania roots and the products the family sells, as well as its midwestern ties to the Milford area, where Craig grew up.
One side will have a pointed, triangular roof, common among the shops of Amish merchants in the northeast, while the other will mimic a more rounded, Midwest-style barn.
“My wife, Karen, grew up working in a store like this in Pennsylvania. We use the same vendors for our meat and deli items,” Craig said. “All our stuff comes from Mennonite or Amish backgrounds.”
Walnut Creek and Dutch Valley Foods are the market’s two main vendors for meats and bulk food items.
It also sells books, toys and home decor.
The Bontragers purchased the market from Neil and Lucinda Burkholder in November 2021 and have since expanded as much as possible in their current rented space.
“Because we’re doing well, we’re running out of room,” Craig said.
About a third of his merchandise is out of reach of customers, lodged on high shelves or atop coolers.
The building’s electrical system can’t handle any more refrigerators or freezers, and space is tight.
“This was a lumber yard. It was never designed to be a grocery store,” he said.
The Subway Motors property will allow for a larger building, moving from the market’s current 4,000-square-foot space to nearly 10,000 square feet.
That will enable the market to expand its Trackside Deli offerings – sandwiches, homemade pies, and take-home meals – with a cafe-style seating area.
The Bontragers also plan to expand their product line.
“We have about 1,500 Walnut Creek items that we sell right now, but they offer about 8,000,” Craig said.
Currently, the store receives deliveries every two weeks, so it has to buy larger quantities, which takes space and careful planning.
“I spend a lot of time watching expiration dates so nothing goes bad,” Craig said.
With the larger building, they’ll be able to order weekly, which means smaller orders and fresher items.
Social media advertising and simple word of mouth have helped the business flourish.
“We’ve had customers from as far as Canada and Tennessee,” he said, pointing to the map near the door pricked with pins of shoppers’ hometowns. “Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody. Word gets around.”
He estimated about 40% of the store’s weekend customers come from outside of Seward County, and he’s grateful for the local residents who patronize the market.
“We want the local folks to stay here. Supporting local is a big deal to us, and it was a big deal to Rod,” he said.
Part of the market’s mission is to show people the joys of cooking the way it used to be.
“We’re educating people about bulk food use and how to store it properly. We put instructions on stuff and answer questions,” Craig said. “What’s pectin and how do I use it? My grandma used to can. How do I do it?”
With a larger kitchen, he hopes to offer meals that aren’t fast food but can be taken home and warmed so families can still have a home-cooked meal on busy nights.
“I hope we can keep the trend of old-fashioned, down home, but we have to be modern, too,” he said.
The Bontragers have applied for LB840 and Community Betterment funds through the City of Milford to aid in the process of demolition of the old building. The result of those applications is expected at the city council’s Dec. 5 meeting.
They hope to have the lot cleared by the end of the year and begin building in early 2024.
Craig estimated the total project cost at $1.1 million and said expanding the store will equal more sales tax revenue for the city, which has the potential to generate more LB840 funds for other projects.
Since the property sits at the main entrance to Milford, they want the store to be an attractive, welcoming asset that will be around for decades to come.
“I grew up here. I raised my family here. I want to see Milford succeed,” Craig said. “Our youngest daughter wants to take this over someday.”
Celia Bontrager, now 19, graduated from Milford High School and worked in the store under the Burkholders’ ownership. She continues to work there, sharing her vision and ideas for the new market.
“I’ve dreamed of this my whole life,” she said.
She has explored other stores on visits to the northeast, her favorite being the Kirbyville Farm Market near Kutztown, Pennsylvania.
“I like using their store as inspiration for our new store,” she said.
But the Bontragers won’t forget about the Hoppe family and the legacy they created on the same piece of property.
Craig said he dismantled the sunroom that flanked the Subway building and hopes to incorporate that or a few bricks from the original structure into the new store, “to tie the new with the old.”