Imagine you’re rolling a grocery cart down the aisle of your local Kowalski’s Market, searching for that one rare ingredient you need to complete a dish – Maldon salt, organic rosemary or perhaps one perfect persimmon. As you hunt, an attractive, white-haired woman appears at your side. “I’m Mary Anne Kowalski,” she says. “Can I help you find what you’re looking for?”
Amazing as it always is for shoppers, this scenario occurs fairly frequently at any of the 10 Kowalski’s Markets in the Twin Cities. Kowalski, the owner, and her daughter, Kris Kowalski Christiansen, who is CEO, make it a point to travel together to store locations each week. “We look at produce, talk to employees, check out displays and have lunch with the manager,” said Kowalski. “I don’t intrude on people who are busy shopping, but if a person seems to be looking for something, I will ask if I can help.”
During the pandemic, Kowalski, 75, and her team have been busier than ever, while shoppers have gained a new appreciation for the importance of these stores to the community. “I always thought of medical professionals and first responders as essential, but here we are,” she said. “Sometimes Kris and I look at each other and we have to laugh – ‘We’re essential?’ We’ve always thought we had a responsibility to the customer to be the best we can be, but this is something new.”
Kowalski’s Markets remained open even during a statewide shutdown this spring. They’ve responded with alacrity to the new reality, including the installation of plexiglass shields, the reorganization of store traffic and the redesign of checkout areas. As the first designated civic business in the state (a business that is run using democratic principles) and a founding member of the Midwest Active Citizenship Initiative, Kowalski’s is staying strong by relying on its governing principles: human capacity, active citizenship, democratic practices, political competence and institutional efficacy (see “Governing Principles” box, below).
THE FIRST STORE
As the organization enters into a new era, its owner reflected on the journey that began in 1983, when she and her husband, Jim, opened their first store on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, near where they were living. At the time they bought the store, Jim was working in the corporate office at Red Owl, a longtime regional grocery chain. “We bought the store with our life savings and a loan from a friend,” she recalled. The couple divided duties in the new venture. “Jim knew the grocery business very well, so he handled all of that.
I took on the people side of things, plus the finances and bookkeeping.” To staff the store, she hired friends of her then-16-year-old daughter, who was attending Derham Hall High School (now Cretin-Derham Hall). “We had a whole store full of 16-year-olds, which was beautiful until they got a little older and all wanted to have the night off to go to prom,” she said, laughing. “I think Jim and I ran the registers that evening.”
The couple realized it would be impossible to compete with discount stores like Cub, so they sought ways to make Kowalski’s unique. Step one was a physical overhaul. “First, we removed all the overhead fluorescent lighting,” she said. “Lighting is the key to feeling comfortable.”
FRESHEST, CLOSEST, NEWEST, BEST
They began to upgrade their product offerings, beginning with the purchase of a small St. Paul bakery she had shopped at while growing up. “We hired a deli director and got a kitchen production facility so we could make our own products,” she said.
Some of those first products remain popular today, even though not many people know their histories. Grandma Betty’s Chip Dip is named for – you guessed it – a recipe that belonged to Jim’s mother. And the buttercream frosting used on baked goods is the same recipe that Mary Anne’s mother used.
Kowalski’s sources all its own meat and seafood, visiting every production facility in person. It also has a commitment to seeking out smaller local food makers. “Curt’s Salsa, for example, was something I picked up at a store near our cabin, and it was so good I just had to carry it in the stores,” she said.
LOSING HER PARTNER
Jim Kowalski (pictured above with Mary Anne in 2003) was a “charismatic person, so easy to talk to and very well-loved,” said Mary Anne. She admired his unique vision. “I called him ‘the magic man,’ because he could completely transform a physical space – he would just ‘see’ it in his eyes, from the ground up,” she said. He had an innate sense of how things should look and how they should be.
Jim died suddenly at age 67 in 2013, after accepting a friend’s offer to make an impromptu fishing trip to Canada. A licensed pilot, he was on land, attempting to bring an amphibious plane onto the shoreline, when he fell into a rotating plane propeller.
Seven years later, Mary Anne offered this advice to others who have lost a spouse or partner: Talk more and be better prepared. “We had done our financial planning, and we used to joke about each one wanting to ‘go’ first,” she said. “But we didn’t talk enough about what we each wanted for the future. I wished I had asked him what he would have done with the stores if I had died first, and he could have asked me the same question.” Still, she has soldiered on, opening three stores since Jim’s death. “I’m sure some people thought he was the catalyst, and I know I’ve had to prove that I can do this, especially to our employee base. But I realized I love this business, and I had every confidence in the world that I could run it.”
“She has endured more loss in her life than most people,” said Kris, “and she continues to live an extraordinary life. She has made me laugh through life’s ups and downs, which has been one of her greatest healing gifts. She is simply the bravest woman I know, and I am the luckiest daughter in the world.”
The store’s commitment to the community continues. Kowalski’s Markets has partnered with Boys and Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities to provide family meals during the pandemic. Kowalski’s 4 Kids is a private, nonprofit foundation that provides program funding, educational opportunities and family support. More than $2 million dollars already has been donated to local charities through the Groceries for Good Causes (GFGC) program. Through a 25-year partnership with Second Harvest Heartland’s Food Shelf, day-old products are given to those in need. Customer donations of the five-cent reusable bag refund goes to Great River Greening, a nonprofit that works to conserve and restore local land and water resources.
“Mary Anne is a true champion of young people, providing them countless opportunities to grow and lead,” said Sue Moores, Kowalski’s Markets nutritionist and the founder and director of Roots for the Home Team, a nonprofit that mentors youth about food. “She encourages younger staff members to step forward and share ideas within the company, and she has a deep commitment to programs that nurture young families and teens.”
Kowalski, who now lives in North Oaks, described herself as being semi-retired. She usually vacations January through March. But this year? “We’ll see what happens,” she said. When not working, she loves spending time with her two grandchildren and two step-grandchildren, especially at the family cabin near Osceola, Wisconsin, about an hour from the Twin Cities. “I love my pontoon,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite things in the world.”
In the meantime, she has no plans to retire. “We’ve just signed a lease to put
a store in Rosedale Center, and we’re considering a location in Southdale Center, too,” she said. “I just never see myself as retiring, unless something happens to me. I want to keep fighting the good fight to remain relevant in this new era of retail giants and tech disruption.”
Kowalski’s is focused on civic organizing and civic policy making for everyone in the organization, and all employees are referred to as “Active Citizens.” In fact, the first question asked in every job interview they conduct is, “What does democracy mean to you?” Their guiding principles that follow are intended to keep everyone focused on doing the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons.
Human capacity: Every individual has the capacity to know what is good, to grow in that knowledge, to govern for the common good and to be a co-producer of justice in the world.
Democratic practices: Rule by “the people” is the best system of human governance.
Active citizenship: An active citizen is a governing member. In a democracy, citizens are obligated to govern for the good of the whole.
Political competence: All stakeholders are responsible to develop the political competence to define problems, produce solutions and establish common agreements in light of civic principles and standards while achieving business goals.
Institutional efficacy: Institutions are obligated to sustain the democratic values of our society.
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.