If anybody knows about the importance of community, it's Everett Whitcher, who this week was picked as the grand marshal of the 65th annual Hog Days Festival parade Sept. 1.
Whitcher, owner of the Save-A-Lot grocery store in Kewanee, has not only depended on the community to support his store, which he opened in 1989, he has regularly returned that support.
“Everett has been a longtime supporter, whether it is a fundraiser or a benefit,” said Chamber of Commerce Director Mark Mikenas, in making the announcement. “You can regularly see where Save-A-Lot has offered a sponsorship or gift certificate towards the cause. They also support a lot of the local youth sports leagues and they regularly donate to charitable organizations and fundraisers. Everett is very supportive of the community.”
Whitcher, who started in the grocery store business as a bagger at the Kewanee Del Farm, never strayed far from his hometown.
After purchasing a Galva grocery store in the 1980s, he returned to Kewanee to buy the store he used to work for (which had changed to Super Valu) and then converted it to the Save-A-Lot brand in 1997. He also owns a store in Monmouth.
Whitcher has had a knack for flowing with every change in the grocery business and has always ended up with his head above water – an attribute he credits to his own hard work and community support.
He's had times of doubt, where he didn't think his store could withstand the ever-changing retail landscape. And he's had offers to buy his business, which he once almost took when things looked tough.
“I just couldn't do it,” he said, and that faith and perseverance has paid off.
By the 1990s, Whitcher wasn't competing with the local stores anymore because many of them had gone by the wayside. It had become a battle against the big chains.
“So much has changed,”  he said. “We've worked long and hard and we can compete with any of them any day of the week.”
And now, the new challenge has been in competing with online sales, as customers increasingly purchase nonperishable items in bulk through internet vendors.
“It's something that's affecting every business, not just us,” he said. “It's so important to shop local if you want these stores in your town to be around.”
His store mantra is simple in theory: Provide friendly service, good meat and fresh produce, and never forget the community that you serve.
“We work with so many groups and organizations, I couldn't tell you how many,” he said. “We give back to the community. I think we've dealt with about every church in town.”
He said he doesn't just do that because it's the right thing to do, or because it's good for business.
It's because he feels like he owes a lot to the community.
“When I was in school, I always wanted to own my own business,” he said. “I've been very fortunate because I got to do that and I didn't have to leave the area to realize my dreams.”
His local touch is evident as he walks through the store, with a customer stopping him by name to ask him where the “on-sale” bacon is. He points her in the right direction and she thanks him.
Whitcher said he had reservations when he got the call from Mikenas to be parade marshal.
“I was really surprised. It's not something I ever even thought about,” he said. “I can think of so many other people who should be there way more than me.”
Whitcher said he is proud that his store over the years has been able to provide pork patties and pork chops for the World's Largest Outdoor Pork Barbecue.
Since the festival's meat purchase goes out for bid, Save-A-Lot doesn't always get to supply all of the meat, but they usually outbid for either the patties or chops. Last year, they provided the patties; this year, they won the bid for steaks.
“It's nice to say they came from Kewanee,” he said.
– Tammy Wilkinson contributed to this story –