When the Gary Milk House closed last August, it left a noticeable void in Duluth’s Gary-New Duluth neighborhood.

“The store was a centerpiece for Gary,” said Derek Medved, who plans to reopen the Milk House this month. “It’s a close-knit community, and the store was very missed. It served a great purpose. It’s just left a dark spot in the neighborhood.”

Medved should know.

He grew up in Gary within blocks of the convenience store and gas station at 1331 Commonwealth Ave. At 13, he started doing odd jobs for then-owner Jim Shelton. At 16, he was

added to the payroll, working

as a cashier and eventually becoming a manager.

“I pretty much worked my way up the company,” he said.

There was something special about the family-owned hub of activity that included a pizzeria, deli and car wash. In the somewhat isolated Gary-New Duluth community in the city’s western end, the business had a small-town feel.

“You knew the people when they came in,” Medved said. “You knew your customers by name, you knew their kids, their families. And they knew you and what you were about. It’s like a family.”

Medved plans to open for business on April 24, his 20th birthday. But he’ll save the grand-opening celebration for Gary-New Duluth’s Far West Fest in June.

“He’s more than capable,” said Mike Letica, operations manager for Curtis Convenience Stores. “Starting a business is difficult. Because the previous owner had it shut down, that made it more difficult.”

But Letica says Medved has a lot going for him. Because he worked at the store for several years, Medved is a known person in the community. He has a nice personality and is hardworking.

“He will work 80 hours a week if he has to,” Letica said.

That may happen. Medved expects to be there to open the store at 5 a.m. and to close it at midnight as well as be there for much of the day, seven days a week. He already has scheduled time for daily naps at his home a few blocks away.

“I will be there day-in and day-out as I have to,” he said. “I will do whatever I have to do to succeed.”

Letica, a family friend, helped Medved get in touch with vendors and served as a source of information.

“He’s a good listener,” Letica said of the young entrepreneur. “He’s a sponge. He’ll ask a question, and when you tell him the answer he absorbs it. He’ll move forward with that, with whatever advice I give him… He’s mature beyond his years.”

Starting from scratch

Little remained in the store when Medved gained access three months ago, save some coolers and knickknacks. But some Milk House signage still was in place. An old Gary Milk House sign from decades ago that has since been donated by a former patron will be re-hung, and its image will become the new company logo.

“I want to bring that logo back and refurbish it,” Medved said. “I want to bring back the past.”

Preparation has been underway for weeks to get the store and gas station back up and running. The store space has been cleaned up, painted and updated. New equipment is being installed. Shelves are filling up as merchandise arrives.

It will again be a Cenex station, with the new fuel company signs scheduled to be installed today.

Medved has rehired the previous general manager and hired two other employees for a starting staff of four, including himself. He also has family members ready to help if needed.

After the store opens, the car wash will follow in a few weeks, along with a deli offering submarine sandwiches and pizza.

On-the-job training

Medved not only learned a lot about running a store from Shelton, the former owner, but he developed a passion for work and for business while employed there.

After graduating from Denfeld High School in 2013, Medved left to take a full-time job as a warehouse supervisor for Upper Lakes Foods. But within weeks, he returned to the Milk House to also work there part time.

Faced with health and financial difficulties, Shelton closed the business in August and the property’s ownership reverted to Members Cooperative Credit Union.

Despite his youth, Medved worked a deal with the credit union to buy the property, which has an assessed market value of $270,500, according to St. Louis County property records.

“I stepped up,” Medved said. “I have great credit, a great history with the bank. They backed me, and we went from there.”

He had taken business courses and sought advice from the Entrepreneur Fund, which helps startup businesses. And he had put together a solid business plan.

The result was a purchase agreement for the property that will make him the sole owner. He says he did it on his own.

“From day one I was a saver, a penny pincher,” he explained. “I saved and saved and saved. I didn’t come from a rich background. My mother said if you want something, you work for it. I learned that from day one.”

Shelton, who owned and operated the Milk House for 20 years, isn’t surprised that Medved is reopening the business.

“He always wanted it,” Shelton said. “He always joked about buying me out someday. I could see the passion he had for business. When he did something, he put all he had into it.”

Shelton said he had several key people working for him, and Medved was one of them.

“I’m so proud of him, and I’m just thrilled for the community,” he said. “It makes me so happy to know he’s going to be there for people.”