This pandemic-survival message brought to you from a small business in a tiny Kansas town

Kaylee Hadle "hanging out" of the new drive-through window at Sweden Creme in Mankato, Kansas. (Sweden Creme/Facebook)

Like everyone, Karla Fleming was scared when the pandemic hit.

“I had this horrifying thought: What am I going to do?” she says. “Because I have all these people depending on me for jobs.”

Fleming’s business is in one of the hardest-hit sectors. She’s one of the owners and the general manager of Sweden Creme, a small restaurant in Mankato, a town of fewer than 900 people about a hundred miles northwest-ish of Salina.

“You could classify us as fast food, but we classify ourselves as really good fast food,” Fleming says.

There are the typical hamburgers and ice cream, but they also serve brick oven pizza and healthy options like salads and wraps.

Mankato was hurting for business long before COVID-19. Fleming remembers an economic development meeting where people said they needed an industry to move to town. What they really needed, someone said, was people to open businesses.

“I turned that around on myself,” Fleming says, “and thought, well, I could open a business.”

She’s an entrepreneurial type anyway.

“I’ve always been a believer that you can literally create your own job,” says Fleming, who grew up in Mankato, went to K-State, got married and ran a restaurant in another town before moving back to raise her family.

She and her husband farm and raise game birds.

“We have 40,000 pheasants, quail and chukars. Who would think of that?” she says with a laugh. “But it’s a thriving business. We have customers all over.”

She also works full time for a lawyer, so managing Sweden Creme is, she says, her “volunteer” job.

“I don’t typically work unless I’m shorthanded,” she says. “But I go in every lunch and work.”

Karla Fleming is one of 30 owners, and the general manager, of Sweden Creme in Mankato. (Submitted)

Opening Sweden Creme eight years ago required more than an entrepreneurial spirit. In the sort of business model other small towns have used to keep from dying, 30 people pooled their money and created an LLC.

“The company name is Jewell County Justified,” Fleming says. “We named it that because sometimes I think people want to write off Jewell County, but we’re not ready to write us off.”

Business has increased every year since Sweden Creme opened, Fleming says. They also opened a gift and flower shop downtown, employing 12 people between the two businesses. Their goal was never to get rich, she says: “Our goal was to have businesses open and provide jobs.”

Before COVID hit, about 30% of Sweden Creme’s orders were for takeout. When the mandate came to close their dining room, she says, they had to change fast.

Her husband built a drive-through window, which has been such a hit that it’s staying even after the pandemic. They started doing deliveries, which Fleming had thought about for years anyway.

“Forcing us to figure out how to do 100% takeout made us think outside of the box,” she says. “We literally sent a menu to every household — we sent 800 menus out and notified people that we’re delivering.”

Because Mankato has an aging population and elders couldn’t go to the senior center, they started delivering economical meals for people over 65: $5 for half a Reuben, a side salad and ice cream.

They even set up an online ordering system for delivery or pick-up.

Another thing she’d thought about for years: fried chicken on Sunday.

“It’s wildly popular,” Fleming says.

A July photo of Sweden Creme, along Kansas Highway 36 in Mankato, shows the new drive-through window at front. (Sweden Creme/Facebook)

A lot of political rhetoric is blowing around about how Kansas has handled the pandemic. Last week, Republican leaders of the Legislature accused the governor of mismanaging the state’s response, suggesting they were the only ones protecting small businesses.

Fleming says federal and state funding was helpful.

“I’m not a real fan of all the politics that are going on,” she adds. “I’ve known people who’ve gotten sick. I’ve known someone who’s died. I know someone who was hospitalized, was very sick, and he still looks terrible. It’s a real thing.”

She appreciates it when drive-through customers are wearing masks, she says, “because they’re protecting us.”

Fleming says Jewell County is heading in the right direction overall. Since Sweden Creme opened, she says, other businesses have begun to crop up. Jewell County has a hospital, which is undergoing an $8 million renovation. The schools are good. Young people are moving back.

“Three or four years ago we had a baby boom — 25 babies born that year,” Fleming says, sounding as if those were her own grandkids. “For a county that has less than 3,000 people, that’s kind of a big deal.”

She says COVID is a wake-up call.

“It’s scary, in this modern world, that this is happening to us,” she says, “but maybe we should be paying a little bit more attention to what we’re doing in our lives.”

Everyone was always so busy. But now, she says, “no meetings, no ball games, no anything for how many months, and we survived. So maybe we should take into account really what’s important to us.”

As far as business during COVID-19, she says, you just have to adapt.

A new coffee bar should be open within three weeks at the gift shop downtown, Fleming says. That business’s name: Possibilities.