With all the recent buzz about Enron"s collapse and Martha Stewart"s finger in the pie, ongoing cases of unfair labor practices and environmental abuses, it"s pleasant to encounter a business with owners that value integrity more than profit. LeTava Muhammad does just that with her family-owned and -operated convenience store and carryout restaurant, Millersville Mini Mart.
LeTava Muhammad runs the only tobacco-free convenience store in Indiana.
Tucked away from the urban sprawl of Keystone Avenue, between a small, tidy neighborhood and stretches of car dealerships and fast food restaurants, Millersville Mini Mart offers basic grocery items and a menu of carryout meals, mostly chicken and fish as well as homey items like the best-selling bean pie, which "will knock you right out of your seat," LeTava tells me. "It"s the kind of thing you plan to eat for dessert," she says, "but every time you end up eating the bean pie first because you just can"t wait." It"s a modest store, but it"s well-stocked with almost everything a person could need for a quick stop shopping trip. One thing you can"t buy at Millersville Mini Mart, however, is a pack of cigarettes. "It would be hypocritical for us to give this message to our children that tobacco can kill you," LeTava said, "then turn around and market it to our customers. We came to the conclusion as a family that a dollar doesn"t justify that." For that reason, Millersville Mini Mart is the only tobacco-free convenience store in the state of Indiana. Without tobacco sales, their store can"t make the same level of profits other convenience stores make, but the benefits LeTava and her husband derive in setting a good example for their children far outweigh the monetary advantage they would gain if they compromised their values and started to sell cigarettes. LeTava Muhammad"s commitment to her children is evident, not only by the way she giggles proudly when she describes their achievements - learning sign language and starting their own business - but also in the choices she has made for their sake. She spends hours each day home schooling them, sometimes using the store as a training ground. "When you become a parent," she said, "suddenly in everything you do, you start calculating how it"s going to affect your children." Two years ago, when LeTava Muhammad and her family decided to start a business, a convenience store seemed like a natural choice. There isn"t a mainline supermarket within walking distance from their location, yet many of the nearby residents are elderly, physically challenged or for one reason or another aren"t able to just hop in a car when they need to buy a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. Many of them rely on the bus system for transportation, making a convenience store within walking distance a real benefit for their community. Before their store opened, LeTava and her family sat down to make a list of all the things their store would sell. "We"re not sophisticated business people," LeTava told me. "We just sat down and started brainstorming about the types of things we would buy if we went into a convenience store, but prior to opening the doors on day one, we knew that we were not going to carry tobacco products." Many other store owners and suppliers have told LeTava that Millersville Mini Mart will not survive unless it offers tobacco. One hour of tobacco sales in another convenience store equals all the sales of Millersville Mini Mart in an entire day. "When you"re told [by a tobacco wholesaler], "Hey, you"re not going to make it without our help," it just makes you that much more determined." In the ever-increasing business environment of corporate ownership and national franchises, a family-owned business makes for an attractive alternative. At Millersville Mini Mart, LeTava Muhammad and her family make decisions as a business that interacts directly with its community. If a regular customer asks for a specific item, LeTava might order it and keep it stocked just to suit the needs of that individual. Many of the neighborhood"s senior citizens send their grandchildren to the store, and they appreciate knowing that the person behind the counter at Millersville Mini Mart knows who they are and will keep an eye out for them. "When we say we believe in doing business responsibly," LeTava tells me in her confident, down-to-earth-way, "we just believe in being responsible parents. We don"t want to do anything that would make us ashamed to leave as a legacy to our children."