REGENT — Darrel Remington remembers when Regent supported three grocery stores.
“All were important, of course,” he said as he looked over a mostly quiet Main Street on the morning of Feb. 5. “Then it narrowed down to eventually the one.”
The one, thanks to sustained community efforts, has fought through the tough times and still provides an essential service to the small southwest North Dakota town of less than 200 people.
The Regent Co-op Store opened in 1936 and, like most everything else, has changed a great deal since that time. Where boots and shirts were once sold, there’s now a freezer of frozen pizzas.
Despite many up and down years, the store manager Matt Mitchell describes as “the heartbeat of our community,” continues to hum right along thanks to the efforts of community members who work to keep its doors open.
“I couldn’t imagine this town without the store,” said Mitchell, who moved to Regent from Panama City, Fla. “The people who come here, they depend on the things we have.”
Remington, a retired school administrator, is a member of the Co-op’s board. He managed the store for a short time in the 1960s. Back then, he said, everyone’s purchases were kept track of for its dividend system, which eventually faded away.
“Now it’s become kind of a pseudo co-op,” he said. “It’s still under the same organizational structure. Things evolve as the situation dictates.”
At one time, the Co-op allowed farmers and ranchers to use its butcher shop. Around the same time, one side of the store was for groceries and the other was for dry goods.
“It’s basically now a grocery store, when it was a general store,” Remington said. “The basement used to be the hardware department. Now it’s more or less storage.”
Throughout the years, the store changed with the times. It rented out VHS and video games throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The Co-op still sells some Regent and North Dakota memorabilia while carrying the essentials for daily life, from shampoo and toothpaste to milk, bread and eggs.
There’s a few extras in there too, including prepared takeout meals for lunch — a relatively new development in response to Regent losing its longtime cafe.
During harvest in the late summer and fall, the Co-op provides evening meals for harvesting crews.
“Essentially, they make up hot dishes,” Co-op board President Tia Honeyman said. “It’s all boxed up and, one by one, they come and pick it up.”
Because Honeyman manages Dacotah Bank just down the street, she said she rarely has the opportunity to help her farmer husband prepare meals for lunch — especially during the busy times of the year. She said the family often takes advantage of the Co-op’s meal offerings.
The Co-op has also discovered a niche by offering meats cut to order for customers, Honeyman said.
“You can have your steak cut any way you want it — and it’s fresh,” she said.
The store also boasts Hettinger County’s only commercial bakery, which Honeyman said has been an important part of its business plan for the past few years.
The bakery supplies goods to both the New England Community Store and Olson Foods in Mott, sending buns, pastries and its signature kuchens throughout the county.
“We have the best kuchens,” Mitchell said with a smile.
Brenda Wiseman, who managed the Co-op from 1989 to 2010, now runs a catering business under the store’s name and does its book work. She does most of the catering for weddings and events held in Regent, and supplies the popular Lefor Knights of Columbus Club’s Steak and Shrimp events.
Wiseman said the Co-op’s continuing existence is a result of those in and around Regent taking pride in their community.
“There’s a pride in having a grocery store,” she said. “They’ve worked hard throughout the years. They could have (quit), but they keep supporting it and that’s what keeps the store going.
The business had had its struggles, Wiseman added.
“They could have all very well said, ‘I’m done.’ But they keep coming back.
“For me, when I managed, that’s what made it fun.”
Everyone who helps gets paid a little something, Honeyman said, but she laughed, adding, “we could use volunteer help.”
Keeping the Co-op alive and well is vital to Regent not only during the busy, yet brief, harvest and hunting seasons, but throughout the year, Remington said.
“There’s not a lot of other businesses,” he said.