More than just a Grocery Store

How Grafton’s J-Mart has long been a big part of a small town

Jeff Jessen’s “J-Mart” celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, after he took over in 1993 after it had been closed for some time. Ej Photo/Travis Charlson

Over the course of 25 years, you tend to meet some interesting people. 

“I wish I would have kept a log, I would have had a best-selling book by now,” said Jeff Jessen, owner of the J-Mart convenience store in Grafton. “When you deal with the public in your work, you never know what you’re going to get.

“I remember when I first opened, I came around the corner of one of the isles and a customer was standing there, glaring at the shelf like this,” Jessen said as he crossed his arms and furrowed his brow to demonstrate. 

The year was 1993— Jessen had reopened the convenience/grocery store in Grafton with some persistence and a stroke of luck, after the previous owner closed it down almost a year and a half before. 

“I walk up to him, and ask ’How can I help you?’ and he says to me ‘Where’s the bread?’. ‘Well, it’s in the other isle, here, let me show you’ and he says ‘But the old store had it here’. 

“So I think that’s what the title of my book would be: ‘The old store had it here’.”

For years, the J-Mart has been a Grafton icon, and for a large number of kids who grew up in town, Jeff offered them their first job. 

“[Jeff] is terrific to work for,” said Bryce Ubben, a former J-Mart employee. “He’s very easy going. You can joke around with him but also have someone to talk to about things if you need. He also had a way of teaching life lessons while I worked there.”

Jessen, who is originally from Marion, Iowa, almost wasn’t able to re-open the store. In order to get the grocery store up off the ground again, Jessen needed a wholesaler to bring product to his store. He started making phone calls, but each time he was turned down and told his store was too small.

Then one day, he wandered down to North Iowa Area Community College and found a number for Gateway Foods in a phone book, and he dialed them up. 

Six weeks later, Jeff’s store was up and running. 

“That was my big break,” Jessen said. “ They were awesome, I really enjoyed them.”

A year later, however, Gateway went out of business and Jeff ended up with Affiliated Foods — one of the companies that had turned him down a year before. 

“They were OK,” Jessen said. “They were like your crazy uncle that you know.”

While the school in Grafton is gone, the Chevrolet dealership across the street is no longer around, and as small towns see businesses close up shop more and more, the J-Mart has continued to be there for the people of Grafton. 

“Running a small-town grocery store takes an incredible amount of time and effort and is made more challenging by big grocery retailers who can offer goods at lower prices,” said Kyle Hulshizer, another former employee who grew up in Grafton. “But Jeff knows how valuable the J-Mart is to the Grafton community, including my family, and has been the one to keep the doors open all these years.”

Through it all, Jessen says the community support from his customers and employees is what keeps him putting one foot in front of the other.

“Grafton is very lucky to have such a wonderful little grocery store, Jeff cares so much about his community and his customers,” said former employee Lauren Wilde.

“When I run across former employees, and they run up and give me a big hug and say this was their favorite job— that makes you feel good, that you’re making a difference.” Jessen said. “I’ve had mothers tell me that their kids wouldn’t be who they are today without working here… that makes it all worth it.”

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