The huge corn statue right out front might be the most photographed part of the Country Cupboard in Donahue. But it’s not the most talked about.
That goes to this feeling: Walking in the doors, picking out bread, pork, cheese, soap, jam or a soda, and not seeing anyone to give your money to.
“At first it, I’m sure it can be a little jarring,” Joan Maxwell, who owns the store with her husband, said. “But when people figure it out, they love it and they want to come back.”
Eventually, of course, you figure it out: Add up your items, use the provided scratch paper or calculators if needed, and drop cash or check into the money slot. If you want, wave to the video surveillance camera on the way out.
The honors payment system might seem old-fashioned, but it has worked well since John and Joan Maxwell opened the Country Cupboard in 2007. It houses products made and raised by their family-run farm, Cinnamon Ridge Farms, which is just up the hill from the shed-like store.
“People’s buying interests have changed,” John, who started the farm in 1988, said. “Years ago, they’d buy a whole beef or half beef and now they’re interested in buying a steak for tonight’s dinner — I heard that enough that I need to find a way to give it to them.”
He couldn’t afford to pay an attendant to stay down there, so he decided early-on to install a money slot and a video surveillance system, and “just plain ol’ trust people.”
The door is unlocked 24 hours per day, seven days a week.
“A lot of people are taken aback that there’s some place in the world that is honest,” he said. “It works, and the only reason it does is because people want it to work.”
The system isn’t crime-proof, but the Maxwells have only had two incidents over the years. One person only put $1 in the money slot for $30 worth of goods, and another person made the motions of paying, but didn’t drop any cash in the slot.
After Joan watched the video, she printed out photos of the thieves and taped them to the front door with this caption: “Do you like our new surveillance system? Doesn’t it take nice pictures?”
Both customers later paid the store back.
These stories don’t faze John and Joan, who say loyal customers are quick to call if they see someone leave without paying. If there’s not a price on an item, customers usually take a guess and leave behind their phone number.
“I’m more surprised at how honest people are — that’s what I would want people to know,” she said. “We don’t have a problem at all, because 90 percent of our customers are local and know us.”
On a dry-erase whiteboard, customers also leave notes or requests for baked goods or a certain type of artisan cheese. A cork-board is full with currencies left behind by visitors from Brazil, Canada, China and other places.
“We are the face of it rather than this big corporation,” John said. “When it’s a big entity or fuzzy who is in charge, it’s a lot easier to steal from.”
Putting a face to the farmers goes further at Cinnamon Ridge Farms.
Their dairy cattle operation was toured 6,000 times last year, by school groups, foreign travelers and others, according to Joan. It’s the sort of Iowa charm that brought an October visit from Mike Huckabee, then a Republican presidential candidate, to the farm on a campaign stop.
“No matter what season you come here, you’re missing something,” Joan, a farmer’s daughter originally from Wisconsin, said. “Year round, we’re doing something different in the farming process.”
That includes milking Jersey dairy cows (the Maxwells use robots), raising beef cattle, pigs and chickens. They grow corn, soybeans and winter wheat and make cheese from the milk.
This summer, for the first time, they’re set up at the Freight House Farmers Market in Davenport.
“People like to have choices,” she said. “We want to offer consumers another choice where you don’t have to go through the middle man.”
Along with the store and farmers market, the Maxwells sell to businesses like The Depot in Donahue, Barley and Rye Bistro in Moline and several Hy-Vee locations.
No matter where you find it, John hopes the name on the logo means "something worth trusting."
“We're a family farm, and that shows people that we care and that our lives and our livelihood are on the line here," he said. "What they’re consuming was valued way before they even thought about buying it.”