CLAY, W.Va. (AP) — The parking lot was empty at the Clay IGA, a sign on the door noting the county's only major grocery store was "temporarily closed."
Inside, empty black cases once held fruits and vegetables; half-full shelves held some bags of bread, chips and snack cakes. A few lights remained on in the background, indicating the power was on, despite the faint smell of rotting food at the front door.
There was no date on the handwritten note. However, former employee Rocky Keener said the store permanently closed June 24.
He said the store's owner, Pamela Widener-Stout, never communicated with him that he was losing his job.
She filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection June 21 under the name Clay Foods, leaving the county with a handful of dollar stores, pharmacies and gas stations where residents can pick up limited groceries and rarely fresh produce.
According to Keener, nine people were employed at the store when it abruptly closed.
"I'm worried to death," Keener, 26, said. The Clay resident said he had worked as a stocker at the store since October.
He's a single father now looking for work.
"She leaving me in the dark. It's very upsetting," he said.
Clay IGA, located on Main Street in the town of Clay, filled a need in the area, offering fresh fruits and vegetables, butchered meats and other perishables rarely available elsewhere in the county.
Widener-Stout also manages Bulk Foods Superstore, in Sutton, which is still in operation.
She operated Clay IGA since 2015.
"At this time I am not making any comment," Widener-Stout said. She declined to say whether the store would reopen.
Widener-Stout's attorney, Joe Caldwell, of Charleston-based Caldwell and Riffee, did not return multiple requests for comment.
A representative for IGA's corporate office, in Chicago, said the store was independently owned and had no further information on whether it would reopen under different leadership.
County Commissioner Connie Kinder said news of the store closing was "devastating" to the county of 9,360 people. Kinder noted many of its residents are elderly or disabled.
Clay residents are now forced to travel anywhere from 25 to 45 minutes to shop at full-service grocery stores in neighboring counties.
There is no public transportation in the county, and the senior center in the town of Clay doesn't offer transportation to supermarkets.
One-fourth of the county's residents live below the federal poverty line, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, making it difficult for those without cars to spare extra dollars for longer rides to supermarkets.
"I don't know what we're going to do," Kinder said. "You can't get good food."
A small, locally-owned supermarket in Bickmore, about 10 miles from Clay IGA, offers a limited selection of fresh produce and meat. Small freezer sections in the local Rite-Aid and Family Dollar mostly sell pizzas, bags of fried meat and desserts. A few stores offer little packages of deli meats.
Kinder noted that milk prices were often marked up at these stores. A gallon of 2-percent milk at a Clay pharmacy is $4.19; a gallon of 2-percent milk at the Elkview Kroger, the closest Kroger to Clay, is $2.29.
Kinder brought up the grocery store's closing at a county commission meeting July 10, where the county's three commissioners noted they had no prior warning the store was closing.
She said she planned to reach out to grocery store chains and implore them to come to the county.
Clay County was in a similar predicament in 2015, when its Piggly Wiggly, located in the same building as the Clay IGA, shut down. The closure came after a civil complaint alleged the store's owner, Dreama Clifton Beckett, owed thousands of dollars in unpaid property taxes.
Widener-Stout opened the IGA four months later in the abandoned Piggly Wiggly location, a large white and blue sign boasting "Hometown Proud" with a red heart under its new name.
Keener said the store was always busy with customers. Then, a month ago, managers blamed missed deliveries on a broken-down truck and a vendor change.
"On June 24, we had a power outage in town," Keener said, explaining the sign on the door. "I don't know if they just used that as an excuse to shut down early."
Residents can to buy some fresh vegetables and fruits at local farmers markets. Clay's senior center offers vouchers for produce through the state Agriculture Department.
Mountaineer Food Bank brings perishables — milk, seasonal produce, but no meat — to Clay twice a month during the summer. Its mobile food bank stops at Clay County High School.
Chad Morrison, Mountain Food Bank executive director, said the program becomes needed when local grocers move out of town. He pointed to McDowell County, when its Walmart closed in 2016.
"We have seen that increase for food access," Morrison said. "They end up going to convenience stores and places that don't have fresh food."
A study from nonprofit The Food Trust found that many low-income communities in the U.S. lack access to fresh food due to closed supermarkets or a lack of transportation. They dubbed the issue "the grocery gap." Researchers said access to healthy food is associated with lower risk for obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases.
County commissioners seemed doubtful another store would come to Clay.
"There really isn't a whole lot we can do," Clay County Commissioner Greg Fitzwater said. "We'll be lucky if we get anything."
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.