WESTVILLE — David Gue mingled with customers during the grand opening of his grocery earlier this month, and he got a common response: “Thank you, thank you. It’s been too long since we’ve had a store in town.”
It’s not quite what he expected when he decided to go into business. The La Porte resident was a steelworker who decided he “needed a change.” So he and his wife, Kathleen, started looking.
“We looked around La Porte, and our first goal was to open a resale shop. Then one day I was driving in Westville and saw the vacant space with the for rent sign. I talked to the owners and two months later, we had a store,” David Gue said.
“We wanted to start a business,” Kathleen Gue said. “We never even thought of a grocery, but we saw this space, and we saw the need here, so here we are.”
David had worked at a convenience store in the early 1980s. “I always felt business is business, just different products,” he said. So they signed a lease and six weeks later, Old Time Country Market had a “soft opening. We wanted to make sure everything worked.”
Good thing. Within 20 minutes, they noticed a problem. “The new POS (point of sale checkout) system was ringing everything up for 25 cents.”
The second opening went smoother, and a couple weeks later, the store hosted a grand opening celebration, complete with hot dogs, snow cones, free samples, raffles and prizes.
“The town has been extremely supportive,” David said. “I can’t say enough nice things about the people here. Before we even signed the lease, we had over 300 likes on Facebook from people excited to have a store coming back.”
For a history lesson, the former grocery closed in 2016, leaving the town of almost 6,000 – and surrounding small communities – without anywhere close for fresh produce, meats or everyday household needs.
That was a shock for residents. The store first opened in 1970 as Sis’ IGA, then moved to the Westville Shopping Center on U.S. 421 in 1980, becoming Old Time Foods.
David Gue wanted to keep the same small-town feel, while adding a few new touches, including the POS system, which now works fine. He started with the employees.
“Everyone we hired was local,” he said. “When we advertised for jobs, I think half the high school applied. They seem to enjoy working here. They work hard and they treat it like it’s their own store.”
“I feel like it is our own store,” said Westville High student Leah Stockman, who was handing out snow cones to shoppers.
“I worked at Dairy Queen before and this is much better. I am excited to come to work here. It literally feels like I’ve known them forever. We’re all having fun and helping each other out.”
Cashier Janis Milam agreed, calling it “the best job I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot. I really like working here, and I’ve always hated working.”
The youngest, Kylee Estes, isn’t old enough to get a job yet, but she was helping around the store, and sporting her own Old Time Country Market shirt.
“I’m helping out all over today,” she said with a grin. “I’m working hard. I’ve been asking them over and over if I could work here, and they finally gave me some jobs to do.”
To find out what customers wanted, the Gues started a suggestion list. “I have a list at the counter where people can write down what they want to buy and what they would to see added,” David said. “We try to take care of those things in just a couple of days.”
He also believes in keeping it local on the supplier side, using Troyer’s Meats from Goshen, Maple City Roasters coffee from La Porte, Valpo Velvet ice cream; and local produce from Coulter’s, Garwood’s and Ludwig Fish & Produce.
There’s also a gift shop. “We wanted to try something new and original so we added the gift section,” David said. “We call ourselves Cracker Barrel light. It’s repurposed items, estate sale stuff.
“We had originally planned a resale shop, so we had a lot of that kind of stuff. And now local people can sell their wares here, too.”
He said, “People in La Porte County just love estate sales and flea markets, where you can get nice things at reasonable prices.”
Knowing what people want and giving it to them for a reasonable price will be the key to success, David said. He learned that from the previous owner.
Another history lesson: Bryan Setser, who closed the store after suffering a heart attack, still owns the property. It was his father who opened the store, and he ran it with his wife Jan for years.
“Bryan’s been great,” David said. “He and Jan have been extremely helpful.”
Speaking earlier this year to The La Porte County Herald-Argus, Setser said: “My dad didn’t know anything about groceries when he got started, but he was willing to work hard and he got his family involved, and it became a very successful enterprise.”
Gue intends to learn from that success.
“Bryan Setser is a legend around here,” he said. “But I want to do things a little differently, make it ours.”
However, when asked about his business philosophy, he said he wanted to plagiarize Setser: “He told me, ‘We believe in comfortable service.’ And that’s what I want everyone who comes in here to feel.”