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.
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.
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.