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Little town, bigger store

New grocery wins praise in Ruch

RUCH -- Craig Hamm passes the time on his daily commute from here to his Medford home counting cars headed west along Highway 238.

Sixty-two is the most he's seen headed from Jacksonville toward Ruch. The counting is more than idle fancy.

The 46-year-old grocer is doing market research of sorts, marveling at the number of people driving toward his Ruch Country Store.

People don't realize that they have a full-blown grocery store here and can get whatever they want, he says.

But word is spreading fast.

The store opened in late October in the spot formerly filled by Ron's Market, a Ruch standby for more than 20 years. Ron's closed at the end of August.

Hamm sees new customers almost daily -- many filled with praise for the renovated store, which features a spacious layout and carpeted floors. The design is similar to that of Cantwell's Markets. Hamm spent two years working for Cantwell's.

I like it, says Vicki MacKenzie of Ruch. It's real roomy and it looks a lot cleaner.

It's marvelous, says Maya Lindsey. I do all my shopping here now rather than going into town.

That's just the response Hamm is banking on. He estimates the area has 10,000 potential customers, and he's trying to cater to all of them.

The store is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day -- longer hours than most small-town stores.

I was really committed to opening it early and staying open later because people are commuting, he says, adding that he's trying to lure morning commuters with homemade cinnamon rolls.

Hamm says he's also taking steps to help people bond with the store -- things like asking them what they want him to stock and featuring vegetables, bread and other products from the area.

It's like you are supporting a community, he says. It's like these are Jim's carrots and everybody knows Jim. I want people to know that it's their store.

Hamm says he's wanted to own his own country grocery store since childhood and picked up the knowledge to do it over 30 years working in the industry.

He spent 20 years working for Fred Meyer, including three years as the store director for Medford's north location. In 1993, he started a wholesale grocery business.

He also spent two years as a vice president for Cantwell's, the popular Ashland natural food store that expanded into Medford but has since closed both Medford stores. Hamm helped design both Medford stores.

But Hamm doesn't want to target a market the way Cantwell's caters to natural-food lovers.

There's a big diversity of people out here, he says. I want to cater to them all.

The two-month gap between the Ruch Country Store's Oct. 27 opening and the Aug. 31 closure of Ron's Market seemed like an eternity to some residents.

You don't realize how important having a grocery store is until you don't have one, says MacKenzie.

Hamm hopes residents won't worry about that again for decades.

I've got a 20-year lease, he says, and I hope I'm out here for that long.

Craig Hamm, owner of the Ruch Country Store, checks Vicki MacKenzie's groceries. The store opened in a spot formerly occupied by Ron's Market in Ruch.