Going Places. Here at Home: Katie Ruff

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Katie Ruff

This is one in a series of articles highlighting the latest generation of innovators  making a difference in our communities.


Shop owner is a voice for other small business owners and all the area has to offer


By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


“I was the quiet, shy girl in high school,” said Katie Ruff. “When I tell people that, they usually laugh. They don’t believe me.”


“But I’m not quiet anymore,” she added. “I’ve found my voice.”


Since moving back to the area eight years ago, the owner of the McGregor small business By the Spoonful has become an advocate for other small businesses and Iowa-made products, in addition to helping build community through her involvement with local organizations.


Originally from Farmersburg, Ruff always felt a connection with McGregor’s historic downtown. She never imagined she’d one day own and operate a food store and coffee shop out of one, though.


After graduating from MFL MarMac, Ruff, now 35, had plans to be a history teacher. 


“Then, I like to joke it was my mid-life crisis at 20,” she said. “I wasn’t happy with what I was studying.” 


Instead, Ruff switched focus to one of her favorite hobbies: cooking. She earned a degree in culinary science from Iowa State University and worked eight years at Hy-Vee, the last two as a retail chef. There, her goal was to get customers to buy more ingredients and try them out at home.


“I did some cooking classes too,” said Ruff, “and I just loved teaching people new things and encouraging them to cook more.”


She joked with her parents that, perhaps when she was 40, she’d return home and open a small cooking school—one that worked with local businesses and producers.


“That was Christmas time 2012,” Ruff said. “A week or two later, my mom called and said the little food store we used to love going to in McGregor had closed.”


That March, Ruff quit a job that no longer fulfilled her and moved back to northeast Iowa. By the Spoonful opened just a couple months later.


“McGregor seemed like a good place to own a small business,” Ruff remembered thinking at the time. “I thought, ‘If I reopen that store, I’m sure the summer crowd won’t know any different. Hopefully the locals would support again.’ I assumed as much because I grew up in a family where we supported small businesses. We did things throughout the whole county.”


Her first year, Ruff said she stocked her shelves with products suggested by the previous store previous owners. While some items sold well, others didn’t. So Ruff listened to her customers.


“I carry a lot of things that aren’t necessarily local, but they’re Iowa made—they’re from another small business,” she said. “People were asking, ‘Where’s this from?’ I could just see people liked the idea of supporting a small business and the quality that came from those products. They wanted a taste of Iowa, especially if they were traveling through.”


By the Spoonful’s Iowa selections range from meats and dairy to salsa, connections Ruff cultivated through extensive research, talking to companies, even picking up business contact information from customers.


Some favored Iowa products are wine and beer, items Ruff likes to focus on because wineries and breweries often can’t sell across state lines.


“My goal is not to compete with other small businesses that also sell beer, like Stark’s [in Prairie du Chien, Wis.] I want to do something they can’t do,” Ruff said. “Every time my beer vendors come, I ask, ‘What’s Iowa?’ Now, one vendor always says, ‘You get the weirdest stuff.’ But it sells. Over time, I’ve gotten more and more breweries, more beers.”


As a smaller store, Ruff said By the Spoonful is sometimes overlooked by distributors, or breweries themselves, in favor of larger entities. She has to fight to the get the products she wants.


“Especially being a small business, you have to be a squeaky wheel,” she said. “If I don’t advocate for myself, they’re going to make sure bigger stores get that new beer. I would even contact certain breweries and say, ‘I’ve had people ask for your beer. I see you can distribute. How can I get your beer in my store?’”


“You have to be an advocate for yourself, and sometimes that’s scary,” Ruff added. “If you want it, you have to stand up for yourself.”


Over the years, Ruff also hasn’t been afraid to try new things. When some customers complimented her store, but opted not to buy products because they weren’t big cooks, she created a selection of freezer meals people could just pop in the oven. When people started stopping by later in the day in search of coffee drinks, she added that too.


“I’m open until 6 p.m., so it was more the travelers through from the city and they’re used to getting a coffee 24/7, but all the other coffee shops tend to close around 3,” she explained. “So I had the opportunity to put the coffee and espresso in.”


Before the pandemic hit, Ruff had also started offering cooking classes—her original goal in moving back to northeast Iowa.


Owning a business isn’t easy. Ruff even likened it to being a farmer.


“You can’t just leave,” she said. “My customers expect that I’m here, and I’m here 95 percent of the time.”


The rewarding aspects outweigh the tough parts, though. Ruff likes connecting with customers most of all.


“They just feel like friends coming to visit,” she remarked.


She also appreciates that owning a small business in a small town gives her the opportunity to get involved in ways she couldn’t have done in a city. 


“If I’d opened a business in a city, I don’t think I could be as active because there are so many other people. You can get lost,” she said. “Here, you can do so much.”


Ruff has volunteered with several area groups, including the former Prairie du Chien Jaycees and McGregor Lions Club. For around seven years, she has served on the McGregor-Marquette Chamber of Commerce Board, and is currently its president. 


“I have a lot of ideas, and I thought I could be a voice,” Ruff said. “I’ve talked with my customers, both locals and travelers, about what brought them here. I field a lot of questions. That can help us know how to better advertise the area and what we need to focus on.”


Ruff believes in the power of working together. When Marquette and McGregor succeed, she said all the businesses succeed—and vice versa.


She hopes to see that on a county-wide scale as well. A couple years ago, she was elected to Clayton County’s Extension Council. It’s a role she enjoys because of her background in 4-H, an organization she said helped her learn how to set and achieve goals.


“When people ask why I’m successful, I think 4-H instilled that,” Ruff shared. “Now, I feel like I can help mold some things at the youth level and help build community. Those are important to me.”


While northeast Iowa’s breathtaking scenery and abundant recreational opportunities are attractive to Ruff, she admitted it’s that chance to slow down and get involved that’s made returning home so worthwhile.


“You have more opportunities here to stop and take a breath, instead of being so tunnel vision,” she said. “And there’s more you can do that can make a difference.”

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