Don’t be in a hurry when you visit the local bakery. Order the “bieroc,” grab a seat, and make a friend or three.
Although it’s just four blocks long and lined with tidy businesses, Norris Avenue, the main street in McCook, Nebraska, can sometimes take an hour or more to walk down.
“You meet so many people to talk to along the way,” says Ronda Graff, a longtime resident of the small town of about 8,000 people nestled in the rural southwestern corner of the state.
At its heart sits Sehnert’s Bakery, a local business where you can get a good meal and a cup of coffee, to be sure, but also a de facto community center and engine of charity for McCook.
It’s the place where the softball team meets after practice to grab a snack, where elderly farmers gather for coffee every morning and to solve all the world’s problems, where young moms huddle just to have adult contact. No explanation is needed when someone says “Meet at the bakery.” Everyone knows where to go.
But “the bakery” isn’t just a place for bieroc, a local dish of ground beef in cabbage wrapped in a homemade bun (with American cheese for $3.25—or without for $2.90). It’s a source of inspiration for goodness in McCook and the home of the Sehnert Challenge.
The challenge was simple: If McCook could raise $200,000 for the McCook Community Foundation—which grants money for scholarships, the arts, and areas of the community where folks are struggling—then the Sehnert family, who run the bakery, would match it. That’s a lot of “bread” for a place where you can get a meal for $3.25, but McCook rose to the challenge. So the Sehnerts increased it, and in the end, they raised $600,000.
It may not be enough money to “solve all the world’s problems,” but it’s a place to start, just like Sehnert’s.
“I have a single friend who goes to the bakery alone, and people will ask her why she does that,” says local Mary Dueland. “Her response is always, ‘I’m never alone!’ Sehnert’s is the real ‘social media.’”
McCook, Nebraska—and specifically Sehnert’s Bakery and Bieroc Cafe—encourages people to put down their screens and interact with each other, whether it’s a free outdoor concert in the park or Friday nights at the packed football stadium.
McCook is one of those towns where the brick-lined main street, Norris Avenue (named after U.S. Senator George Norris), is only four blocks long but some days it will take an hour to go from one end to the other because you’ll meet so many people to talk to along the way.
McCook is also fostering a culture of community by focusing on arts and culture. Whether it is a free concert in the YMCA lobby or a family-friendly music festival in the park, McCook is working to get people out from in front of their screens and actually talking to each other, learning from each other and in general, just enjoying each other’s company.
This tradition continues with the Buffalo Commons Storytelling and Music Festival, which celebrates the long-honored tradition of gathering around for a good old story. The name also celebrates the tough pioneer spirit, after outsiders said the region should be abandoned and returned to the buffalo and native grasses.
But one place needs to be highlighted and that’s Sehnert’s Bakery, which is a social hub in McCook. It’s the place where the softball team meets after practice to grab a snack, where elderly farmers gather for coffee every morning and solve all the world’s problems, where young mom’s huddle just to have adult contact. No explanation is needed when someone says “Meet at the bakery.” Everyone knows where to go. And if your lunch date happens to be late, no worries because you’ll be guaranteed to see someone you know who you can talk to. The food is great, too (they happened to win a Jams Beard Foundation award this year) but it’s the people who smile as you walk in the door who make it such a welcoming and warm place.