New plan for Toulon grocer

Farm management firm moving into old store

By John A. Ballentine

TOULON – At its membership meeting Saturday, Stark County Ventures (SCV) approved a motion by voice vote to lease its shuttered grocery store building in Toulon to Farm Business Farm Management (FBFM) of that city, which needs room to expand.

In that same motion, the community group of investors voiced strong support for some of its members who plan to create and operate a separate new business down the street called Ben & Julie’s – Deli, meats, meals and more.

SCV is a group of more than 50 area residents and former residents of Toulon who banded together in 2008 to buy a building in Toulon to be operated as a grocery store. After several unsuccessful attempts plus a fire that gutted the building, the store has been shuttered for the past six months.

It was expected that at the meeting Saturday there would be a vote between two proposals, one for FBFM’s desire to lease the building and the other from investors in Ben & Julie’s to operate a new kind of multi-service store in the building.

“As the vote approached, I could tell it was going to be close,” said Jim Nowlan, one of the lead investors in Ben & Julie’s, “and either way there might be hard feelings. So, Fulvio Zerla and I began to review a Plan B, in case we lost the vote.

“The more we looked at ‘Plan B,’ the more we came to think it was better than operating from the shuttered building owned by SCV. Thus we have opted to pursue Plan B. The effective rent will be much less, and there are other advantages.”

Plan B is to rehabilitate the former Franklin Small Engine building on East Main. The 40’x90’ building is about the same size as the former grocery store building. It has concrete floor, open floor plan, and appears to be in good shape, said Nowlan.

In order to make Ben & Julie’s work, however, added Nowlan, support from the City of Toulon will be needed to assist with the cost of rehabilitation on the building, and maybe purchase the lot adjacent (formerly the Stark County News building), for additional parking.

The “Ben and Julie” of the new business are Julie Henderson and Ben Steinbach, who will be shareholders in the new venture. These Toulon residents have nearly two decades of experience in running grocery stores day-to-day.

“Everybody likes and respects Julie and Ben,’ said Nowlan, “for their hard work, capabilities and customer service focus.”

“A traditional grocery store won’t work anymore in a small town like Toulon,” observed Julie. “There is too much inventory involved, which sits on shelves too long and can’t compete with prices at the Big Box stores.

“But people do want and will buy high quality fresh meats; deli products; fresh produce, locally grown when possible; meals ready to go, both hot and frozen; convenient outdoor grilling, and a café with six kinds of coffee, open from early morning to the evening. And more.”

FBFM will renovate the interior of the SCV-owned building and expects to move in by the fall.

Ben & Julie’s group will start work this coming week to determine costs and design for a top-notch store.

Investors in Ben and Julie’s include not only Toulon residents Nowlan and Zerla but also former Toulon natives Kyle Howard and Eldon Ham, among others.

Shares in this new limited liability company are available at $500, and people may also buy $100 Ben & Julie cards, which will allow 10 percent off purchases every Thursday for a full year. Persons who buy more than one card may turn them back and Ben & Julie will work with the Good Samaritan Society to distribute them to low-income individuals.

“This is not a charitable venture,” emphasized Nowlan. “We plan to make money, and we may well have a model for other towns to copy.”

For more information on Ben & Julie’s, contact Jim Nowlan at either (309) 238-1500 or [email protected], or Fulvio Zerla at (309) 286-7335.

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