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Indie Closeup: Deep-Rooted Retailer

Chuck and Gabe Borchsenius are carrying on the rich legacy of family-owned The Norway Store
the norway store
Photograph courtesy of The Norway Store

NORWAY, Ill. — Traveling Route 71 into the northcentral Illinois town of Norway, Scandinavian symbols are ubiquitous, all celebrating the town’s rich history.

Norway received its name from the nearby rural community of settlers from the Nordic country in Northern Europe—in an area known as the Fox River Settlement. Dating to the 1830s, the Illinois town represented the epicenter of Norwegian immigration.

The vibe continues both outside and inside The Norway Store, where customers get a heavy dose of the icons that depict the Scandinavian culture—but within a retail format that shines a bright light on the heritage.

Owned and operated by Chuck and Gabe Borchsenius, The Norway Store, with 14 employees, offers Fast Stop-branded fuel and a prolific number of fresh, frozen and refrigerated products inside.

Products range from Spaghetti-O’s to lobster tails and Norwegian specialty foods and gifts, deli-sliced meats and cheeses, fresh-cut steaks, pork, beef, chicken, fish and lamb.

The sixth-generation family store materialized when the store founder opted to leave the rat race of the city of Chicago for a quieter rural life.

“I heard a story years ago about Marshall Field. He and our great-great grandfather worked together for Palmer’s in Chicago, and both left together at the same time to become entrepreneurs,” said Gabe Borchsenius, who’s worked at the store since he was 17 years old. “My great-great grandfather’s [Charles Borchsenius] doctor told him to find healthier air to breathe due to his health, so he moved to Norway.”

In a refreshing but strange twist about the imposition of local competition, the Borchsenius brothers actually thrive on it, if not relish it. Competition helps the management team “focus on selling what we should be selling and away from selling things we shouldn’t,” he said.

A restaurant, Francesca’s, sits 50 yards north of the store and shares the same parking lot as The Norway Store. The two businesses actually complement each other very well, said Borchsenius.

“Even the locals find themselves rediscovering new things here.”

Read on to learn about five aspects about The Norway Store that give the management team the daily brio it needs to stand up to and surpass the local competition:

The best part of convenience store/petroleum retailing that keeps Borchsenius motivated:

“Motivation is easy because your job is different on a day-to-day basis: cooking Trolls [breakfast sandwiches] one day, inventory the next and butchering a hog the next. We are more than a c-store/petroleum retailer. We have just about everything, from the basics to a barbershop and a small coffee bar. We sell a full grocery selection at ‘non-c-store pricing’.”

Management’s approach to finding and retaining solid workers:

“Our community is a natural environment of building solid, hard-working workers. So, a basic word of mouth or a friendly conversation over coffee spreads the word pretty fast for finding help. In the past few years of unexpected events, it has been difficult keeping help due to the vast numbers of great jobs around here. We have fewer employees but they earn more and have an increased daily workload.”

Typical store clientele:

“It’s mostly serendipitous—and even the locals find themselves rediscovering new things here.”

Store categories that continually resonate with customers (and they’re all over the map):

“Homemade garlic kangaroo links, wide seafood selection, homemade oyster stew, deep-fried bacon grenade, Geno’s dried beef strips and Texas-style chorizo breakfast burritos. Our Weller 12-year bourbon sells out. Happy Dad hard seltzer, Racine Danish kringles, Reed Root Beer, Tai Pei frozen meals, Atlantic halibut, Malone’s hot head cheese and Salami-flavored cheese. Some of our supplier-partners include Handy Foods in Ottawa, Avanti Foods, Freedom Sausage, Growmark and Glorious Malone’s Fine Sausage.”

Retail differentiation in the local market—and an appetite for local competition:

“We’re different because we like to support other small grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants whenever we can to keep competition [vibrant] in our area. It helps us focus on selling what we should be selling and away from selling things we shouldn’t be selling. Not having competition means that you would have to work harder to purchase simple items—and at higher prices. Or, you would have to ‘settle’ for whatever [food or beverage products] come around. Having competition in surrounding smaller towns is beneficial to everybody. We also don’t mind sharing [our] recipes to help customers with their own ideas.”

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