Herbivores, omnivores, localvores find groceries downtown

By Jeffrey Decker

What’s in a name? It’s at Downtown Grocery, where we are what we eat and the world is what we make it.

Healthy food and fresh ideas have business stronger than ever one year after their grand re-opening. In 2015 a passerby’s cigarette sparked a fire and two years of extensive renovations. They relocated to twin food court spots just inside the Wausau Center Mall three blocks south. Suppliers, employees and customers stayed positive for the future, which is now.

“Downtown Grocery is a reflection of the strong community they are in,” said Blake Opal-Wahoske, executive director of the Wausau River District and chief advocate for downtown Wausau. Word is out and “They have become a destination for visitors,” he said.

What brings him there most is displayed daily near the dairy and juice cooler, en route to the kitchen. “They always serve the best local and fresh food in their food bar – an absolutely perfect choice for lunch or dinner,” Opal-Wahoske said.

A hot and cold food bar at Downtown Grocery brings some shoppers in daily, for a rotating selection of freshly-made foods that can be eaten in or taken to go. Photo credit: Dave Junion Photography

The salad bar and hot bars have Lynette Schuster’s favorites, too. She’s impressed with the variety, knowing it well as an employee since opening day in 2006. There’s too much to list, but she tries.

“From the fresh greens to all the toppings, to the homemade salads and dressings,” not forgetting the roasted vegetables, rotating entrees or deserts. Schuster sees customers take heart as they take charge of their bodies. She’s glad to decipher nutrition jargon on quests for low sugar, less salt and fewer additives.

Schuster says the owners work side-by-side with her fellow employees, adding,“They’re always approachable and treat the employees like family.”

Megan Curtes Korpela and Kevin Korpela are their names. At 607 Third Street their store’s success echoes continued growth in the U.S. organic market, which has seen sales more than double in the last ten years. In May the Organic Trade Association announced that 2017 “organic” sales in the U.S. totaled $49.4 billion, growing 6.4 percent that year. When the survey began in 1997 organic food sales were $3.4 billion.

That sector’s growth is significant, but those foods are far from the entire selection grown and marketed as sustainable and ethically-oriented. Many green growers and food producers see the USDA Organic label as irrelevant. And paperwork is, by definition, a burden. What gets onto store shelves meets the owners’ own standards.

As Megan describes, “Those things that are not marked ‘Organic’ still have pretty clean labels. You’re not going to find corn syrup, partially-hydrogenated oils… those types of things. All the preservatives and artificial colors and dyes, we’re finding out that those things are not good for our bodies.”

With people so much more numerous these days they need farms to grow bigger than ever, but the low-impact local consumerism lessens that footprint. Many chemicals aiding growth of mainstream food are known to be harmful. More people care where their food comes from than when Kevin opened the store 12 years ago.

Mindful patrons are echoing their ancestors, he says, “We see ourselves as an old-fashioned grocery store. When you look at, say, grass-fed beef or cage-free chickens or pasture-raised pork, for some people these are concepts they’ve never heard of, but this is exactly what we did in decades past or millennia past. We just didn’t call it that. It was just the natural, appropriate way to be respectful of the land, respectful of your neighbors and the animals and the environment.”

Today, four local farms provide the produce. Other area farms deliver fresh meat, “but then we have 200 Wisconsin and Minnesota-based providers,” Kevin says. “If we can buy from the next county or the next state away, we’ll always prefer that. That reinforces the economic viability of our local region.”

He’s always promoted that concept there. Before the fire there were three bakery businesses running out of the grocery’s kitchen. Kevin’s community incubator program fostered entrepreneurs and added fresh treats on his shelves. He found a life partner, too. Megan grew up in Hartford, south of Fond du Lac, and traveled before being drawn to Wausau by its strong gluten-free diet network. At Downtown Grocery she ran a bakery catering to that clientele, got hired by the store owner and married him. Their daughter, 3-year old Adeline likes to say eating fruits and veggies helps her get bigger.

An emphasis on sustainable food systems came with Megan’s Masters Degree in Environmental Education. “I use nuggets from my background in what I do and how I interact with people every day,” she says. Kevin’s Masters Degrees are in art and architecture. A Madison firm he had worked for liked his ideas for shaping apartments from what was Wausau East High School until 2004. Building a new school meant re-purposing the old, and that’s what brought him back to his hometown.

The new design at Downtown Grocery has left more room for expanded offerings. Photo credit: Dave Junion Photography

Both owners collaborated on the new grocery store’s new design, as they had on earlier expansions. They had been renting, but after the fire they bought the building and cleared it out. A staircase that once climbed to a fitness studio now reaches an open seating space high above ground level. It’s a quiet place to eat and relax with a clear view of the store below. Megan and Kevin also open The Loft to community meetings and presentations.
From above and from the sales floor, kitchen magic is seen through its open design. An extra effort to be sustainable sends kitchen scraps to compost that enriches nearby community gardens.

Megan and Kevin are on the advisory committee for the three community gardens known as the Bridge Community Health Clinic Gardens. Kevin is a also leading organizer of Wausau Chalkfest, drawing artists from near and far to spin colors into summer highlight. That July weekend saw heavy traffic downtown and the local grocery store sold new patrons lots of what’s really good for them and what’s just really good.

Editor’s note: All photos courtesy of Dave Junion Photography. This story initially ran in Business News and is being reprinted by permission.

Investigative journalist, music enthusiast, blogger, animal lover, kayaker, knitter, wife, mother.

15 replies on “Downtown Grocery reflects a strong community and commitment to healthy living”

  1. “They had been renting, but after the fire they bought the building and cleared it out.”

    Huh?
    In a prearranged agreement with the city, the original owners gave the building to the city of Wausau after the fire and then the city of Wausau gave it to Downtown Grocery so that both parties could avoid real estate profit taxes and allow Downtown Grocery to avoid a purchase loan on the building/lot.
    The law says the city must charge fair market value for all property it owns, and in this case (and many others) they broke that law to help out a friend of city hall.

    The city helped their friends avoid proper taxes and overhead on the building ownership transfer and gave the original owners a massive tax deduction for the ‘donation’.

    When asked if someone else could make the same arrangement with the city to avoid real estate taxes, Councilman Pat Peckham said “No, we would not get involved with that for just anyone.”

    1. Who avoided real estate taxes? The previous owners were paying real estate taxes and the new owners are paying real estate taxes. So whose not paying real estate taxes? The previous owners received a legal tax deduction for donating the building. The new owners paid the expenses to rehab the building so that we have a viable, necessary business in our downtown that provides jobs and needed goods and services. Oh, by the way they are paying real estate taxes.

      So what’s the downside?

  2. “No, we would not get involved with that for just anyone.” Only the clique that controls the downtown?

  3. The building is still being used and it has a solid grocery with good food, the community and river district have another draw, they pay taxes and will continue to pay taxes… is nothing done to benefit the community ever going to meet with your approval boys.

    This is a Business News story and these are highlights of what is important for our community! We have many good stories to read about across Wausau and downtown.

  4. When taxpayers are forced to help a business avoid real estate and income taxes by doing a property swap (and refuse to do it for anyone else unless they are connected friends), and the receiving business is given a loan from tax coffers that doesn’t have to be paid back, that’s not business, that’s corporate welfare to unfairly enrich two private for profit entities.

    If you were ill and wanted to give your rental income business to a family member and use the city as an intermediary to avoid Medicare from seizing it as an asset the city would not help you.
    But they did just that for their friend so they could avoid a building and lot purchase and to give another friend a juicy tax deduction.

    When the gov’t steps into a private real estate deal to save the parties tens of thousands in taxes and six figures in purchase price, then refuses to do it for everyone else in the city, that’s a disgusting abuse of favoritism and power by this administration.

    If Trump did the exact same thing for Trump Tower to give it to his kids using the Feds as the middle man to avoid the taxes in the deal, you’d be yanking your hair out in furious anger and demanding they pay the taxes owed on it.
    But the city of Wausau does it for a place you like shopping at and you pretend it’s ok to do.

    1. “When the gov’t steps into a private real estate deal to save the parties tens of thousands in taxes and six figures in purchase price, then refuses to do it for everyone else in the city, that’s a disgusting abuse of favoritism and power by this administration.”

      That favoritism has been going on for generations pleasing the downtown clique. At the corner of McClellan and 3ed Street there used to be a historic building that sold newspapers and magazines. In order to take out competition they purchased the building and flattened it to a parking lot that they now rent to the city. As in rent it to tax payers. You think someone will eventually expose the downtown favoritism (corruptions)? No, they just all have a one big party.

    2. Chris, you are SPOT freaking ON about all of this. I remember back when this site first started, I posted the same question and made basically the same comments………to crickets. Actually, the owner of Downtown Grocery replied and got all huffy and offered to meet me “privately” to discuss. I declined the offer and asked him to post IN PUBLIC what he wanted to say to me in private. Well, you can imagine what happened……..nothing. In my opinion, this is CRIMINAL. The mind boggling hypocrisy of basically GIVING prime downtown property to a business to avoid the real estate taxes (among others) while NOT doing the same exact thing for someone else is again……just colossally void of being transparent, not to mention how fiscally irresponsible it is of the city to have done that. I’d love to know WHO EXACTLY rubber stamped that little “transaction”. There are so many questions about this, it really isn’t even funny.

  5. You could have met privately and had a discussion, but you chose not to… why… are you in Witness Protection or just love to post insults and unfounded charges on line.

    I will talk to Kevin and see what he has to say… if ti is not too threatening, then I will give you the all clear to meet with him. Likewise your are free to visit the Mayor’s office and ask questions, I do.

    But then I don’t have the same level of animus and seek answers and solutions, you want answers you have to ask questions.

    Re-read Stan’s post, that is a logical view of how everyone helps and the business goes on and people still earn and pay taxes.

    1. Enk, WHAT is unfounded? WHAT?? Were they GIVEN that building for what….I believe $1 dollar? How exactly is that fair and equal treatment to other business owners?
      I do NOT need your freaking permission or pseudo liaison talents to talk to ANYONE if I wish. Stop with the Napoleon crap. Perhaps you should just send the bug sprayer a PM on FB and he can give you all of the details that the rest of use aren’t privileged enough to know…..since you two are evidently BFF’s.
      Oh and for the millionth time, I chose to be anonymous now to basically just piss you off. How’s them apples? I could easily waltz on down to city hall and ask questions. Would that make me a big, righteous man like you? Probably not, but I’m okie-dokie with that. As long as Shereen allows people like Chris, Stan, Ron and others to post using first names only or other usernames, guess what? Your opinion about that means SQUAT.

      1. When people in the community do things and I have questions, then I ask. As I move in the community on a daily basis and talk to people I learn things. When people are elected to office as public servants I am able to ask them questions and get answers.

        If you are thinking you are pissing me off, then I have sad news, you aren’t and my opinion does mean something, because it sure seems to upset you. I have talked to others that read these posts, they like what I have to say, they like a different view point than your clique is all about…

        I would hope that you could be a righteous man, works for me and my family and friends. I am happy to be morally right or justifiable; virtuous, how I was raised and calling any one criminal or referring to them in a demeaning manners… that is not okay!

  6. Well, John’s back with the insults again. And attacking anonymity, again. I thought he’s been warned about that a dozen times or so?

    We shouldn’t have to meet with business owners to get the city to follow the rules set forth in law or meet with a person getting favors to have them ‘explain’ why the rules being broken for them is OK and not for others.

    As we also see, he admits he knows Kevin personally so he’s ok with the city violating the laws regarding property sale/gifting to private for-profit businesses while not granting all other citizens the same favors.

    One rule on property for the connected clique, and a much different property rule for the rest of us. And John certainly seems ok with it based on his comments all over this website.

    The property was ALWAYS paying taxes. It never stopped.

    Does this mean that the city will step in ad do the same for everyone else under the guise of everyone else pays taxes too? They won’t. They have said they won’t. You have to be juiced in with city hall to get those favors.

  7. And it just happened I might be the owner of a grocery store that sells similar and competitive products. Except, my store is not in the downtown clique’s street. So I am out of luck from all the preferential treatments, from free taxations building exchange, free funds, low interest loans, historic preservation funds, a free team promoting my street, free and more free free free benefits. How many exposure, funds and benefits let’s say “TownLine Market” (40 years old) got during the last few years vs the downtown street clique grocery?

  8. Folks, if you can’t recognize the level of animus and how hiding behind a single name shields you from the requirement to make a fair comment and stand firmly behind you comments, then I will not be able to change your mind.

    FYI, I know many people personally, it is how you build relationships and communicate and they know me and that I stand behind what I say and believe in civility and fairness… I am concerned with what you are asking and that is why I will again go ask the main people.

    I do not throw around terms like CRIMINAL like call, I engage less in speculation and will ask if their was special treatment or just a realist attempt strengthen the River District, especially as storefronts go dark?

    I can ask the TownLine Market and let you and your small clique of commentators know what I find out.

    But I will continue to frequent the local businesses and support our local economy!

  9. Seriously, this little Enk experiment has gone on long enough guys. Even if we factor in some truth to what Enk says, he is constantly trolling everyone with the exact same themes. THE EXACT SAME THEMES.

    You have to stop engaging him. This is another thread that he took off the rails of the discussion at hand, all by himself.

    1. You do notice that he NEVER calls Stan out on being anonymous and attacking people. He agrees with Stan’s opinions so he ignores it. He even tells people to reference Stan’s posts as factual and meaningful while telling us that anonymous posters are not to be listened to.

      He’s cool with property transfer laws being bent or broken if it benefits his friends or a place he enjoys. He’s ok with using political connections to avoid business income taxes if he likes your company. He’s cool with someone being anonymous if they agree with him.

      If he doesn’t like you or your opinion, then he wants you to follow the letter of the law with no exceptions and he doesn’t want anyone to listen to your opinion if you post something anonymously he doesn’t agree with.

      There is a word for someone that does that. Hypocrite.

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