SMALL TOWN, BIG LIFE: Newcastle Grocer Prefers Slower Pace of Rural Life

Kelly Wood supports community with his business, Woody’s Food Center

Woody's Food Center in Newcastle is owned by Kelly and Heidi Wood. The pair have been helping their small community in any way they can since they purchased the grocery store in 2002. (Courtesy photo from Kelly Wood)

By Elizabeth Sampson

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Kelly Wood has made a daily grocery list for the last 21 years.

“Every day I make a list of what needs to be done when I come in—that’s how I stay focused and keep on top of things,” said Wood, 56, owner of Woody’s Food Center in Newcastle. “But other things pop up and get in the way, so your list gets set aside…. You’re putting out fires or making things better as you go throughout the day.”

Some days Wood’s list includes placing a large order with his supplier and deciding what will be included in the advertised sales. Other days he oversees unloading the delivery truck and getting the groceries onto the shelves. He monitors the sell-by dates of everything, helps customers find products and replies to endless emails—all while keeping an eye on what the big chain grocery stores in nearby larger towns are doing to attract his customers.

“I’m the helm of the ship,” Wood said. “You’re trying to steer it in good waters, keep it from hitting the rocks. There’s a lot of behind the scenes that people don’t see.”

Like many small-town business owners, Wood has to do it all. If an employee calls in sick, he could be in the produce section helping a customer find the best bananas for banana bread, running the register or performing any number of jobs t0 keep his store running.

“There isn’t a thing in the store I can’t do, but I can’t do everything in the store, so I need employees,” he said.

Wood co-owns the store with his wife, Heidi, and employs between 25 and 30 people. In fact, he’s given many Newcastle teens their first job.

Kelly Wood and his wife Heidi own and operate the grocery store Woody’s Food Center in Newcastle. (Courtesy photo from Heidi Wood) 

“You’re almost a mentor to them, trying to teach them what life is about—to work hard and do a good job,” he said.

Wood and his family moved from South Dakota to Newcastle 33 years ago so he could manage Lueders Food Center. The store became Woody’s Food Center when he and Heidi bought it from the previous owner in 2002.

In that time, Wood has come to love the town. The county seat of Weston County, Newcastle has a population of about 3,367 people on the edge of the Black Hills near the South Dakota border. The area, which is located in the northeastern corner of Wyoming, is home to many ranching families, and offers a variety of outdoor recreation.

Wood considers Newcastle to be a friendly, supportive and open-minded town. He likes knowing his neighbors and the slower speed of rural life.

“These small towns have something to be said for them,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t get busy and get hectic and have a lot of activities going on. But at the end of the day, you feel comfortable where you are at. I always tease when I go to a bigger place, I’ve got to wait five or 10 minutes to get on the road. In a smaller town, you’ve got to wait five or 10 minutes to see a car.”

When community members face a hardship, the town unites to support them, Wood said.

Many years ago, when a fire broke out on the main street of Newcastle, Wood and his employees made sandwiches to feed the firefighters. When wildfires spread through the area, he collects drinks, food or other necessary items for those firefighters. Wood also has provided food to stranded motorists when a fierce Wyoming snowstorm leaves them stranded.

“Whatever happens, you’re there taking care of it,” Wood said. “We try to do whatever we can. We look out for one another.”

Wood said small grocery stores have some advantages over larger chains.

“Since I own the business I can react to things faster, I can make changes quicker,” he said. “I can keep my thumb on the pulse. Sometimes with the big corporations, it’s harder for them to make decisions, it’s harder for them to get things they might need.”

Case in point: the COVID-19 pandemic. Wood was able to pivot to order brands he doesn’t normally carry to meet customers’ need. Residents in small towns usually travel to large towns to shop, but the opposite was true during the pandemic. 

“Because the bigger towns couldn’t react fast enough or get product they needed, when they ran out [people] just started driving down the road to the next small town and the next small town,” he recalled. “Those were the little gold mines, where they could get their product. During COVID, we were having people shop from all over the place…I literally had business funneled to us that had nowhere else to go.”

Now that the grocery industry is mostly back to normal, Wood continues to do the best he can for his community and customers.

“It’s not that I don’t have days where I am running really hard, but I always like the challenge of having the grocery store and owning my business,” he said. “I always joke around that the benefit of owning your own business is that you get to work as much as you want—and you usually work a lot.”

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