White's Foodliner opens in St. John and 103-year-old Loyd Rats had the honor of being the first customer.

Loyd Ratts cruised down the aisles of White’s Foodliner in St. John, Kansas, and thought of his childhood.

Ratts was the first customer of the new grocery store, which opened Wednesday morning. The grocery store is the two-year culmination of efforts by community groups, led by Stafford County Economic Development, operator of the new establishment.

Funding for the $3 million project came through a sales tax approved by voters and multiple grants, including a $780,800 federal grant from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which the county received a year ago.

“I think it is an important part of a town — maybe not up there with a school, but the next step down,” Pat White, owner of the Kingman-based White’s Foodliner, said. “They’ve made a heck of an investment here. This is incredible.”

It is important to the people of St. John. Several came early Wednesday to browse the aisles, including 103-year-old Ratts who recalled the Wylip grocery store in St. John when he was a child. Ratts was born just outside of St. John and has lived in the area his entire life.

“There was one here in 1915 when I was born. It was on the west side of the square,” Ratts said. “On Saturdays, everybody in the county came to town to shop and visit around a big, wooden barrel of salted crackers in the middle of the store. Someone would buy a block of cheese and people would stand around that barrel and visit.”

Stafford County Economic Development hopes the new store will be a place for residents to visit, though the store bears little resemblance to the Wylip grocery store. White’s Foodliner includes produce, frozen foods and other groceries, as well as an independent pharmacy, convenience store and fuel pumps.

The Dillons store in downtown St. John closed in February 2016. When the county decided to try bringing in a new grocery store, Stafford County Economic Development reached out to several owners before coming to an agreement with White’s Foodliner.

“They reached out to a lot of grocers, and a lot said ‘we can’t do this,’” White said. “We originally said that, but we kept talking about terms, and we eventually said if you can meet these parameters, we’ll do it. And they’ve done that.”

A study that showed building a new, larger facility on the edge of town, rather than reopening the downtown Dillons location, would result in an estimated 40 percent more sales. The new facility was built at the intersection of U.S. Highway 281 and 5th Avenue.

A second study showed that including fuel pumps would grow sales another 10 to 15 percent.

Ratts was excited to have fresh produce back in his lifelong hometown. He eats a banana every morning. He also said the availability of a grocery store is something people look at when deciding whether to move into an area.

“A grocery store and a pharmacy are so vital to a town,” Ratts said. “Especially a nice one like this.”