Originally printed in the April 2022 issue of Produce Business.
When the late Jim Kowalski and his wife, Mary Anne, opened their first Kowalski’s Market on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, MN, in 1983, they began a tradition of neighborhood meetings to find out how the company could better meet consumer needs. Parents in the community said they felt manipulated by impulse buys offered at the supermarket checkout aisles. So the Kowalskis made a change that became permanent — enticing customers and their families with healthful choices and grab-and-go options such as cut fruit, fresh juices and green salads at checkout instead of candy bars.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul area is often included in lists of America’s healthiest cities, so it shouldn’t be surprising that making healthy choices and finding local produce would be customer priorities. “When you go to the checkout lanes at most grocery stores, it’s filled with candy, it’s filled with gum, but that does not align with our philosophy,” says Max Maddaus, produce manager for Kowalski’s Markets’ 11 regional stores. “Baby Barkers (refrigerated units) at checkout offer great cut vegetable and fruit items. We are encouraging customers to grab something that’s healthier than candy and gum.”
Customers want local products, and Kowalski’s gets most of its produce from Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm, based in Waverly, MN. “For conventional produce, we choose local above all else,” Maddaus says. “The vast majority comes from Untiedt. They do an incredible job growing vegetables. It’s not just about producing a product and selling it; they are incredible stewards of the land.”
Kowalski’s Markets’ clientele consists mostly of females, age 35-40, and also Generation Z (those born in 1997 and onward) and millennials. “The younger demographic is most receptive to our branding and overlying messaging,” says Maddaus. “They care where their food comes from, so we have a larger purpose than just putting a commodity on a plate.”
STAYING ABREAST OF TRENDS
Fresh-cut fruits and vegetables speak to Minneapolis families who want products that save time, says Maddaus. “We are taking out some of that legwork and effort, so our customers can provide healthy meals to their family in a timely fashion. We try to stay abreast of customer trends and see what our shoppers are buying, so we offer a lot of cut fruit.”
For wholesale and value-added, fresh-cut products, Kowalski’s also partners with Russ Davis Wholesale, headquartered in Wadena, MN.
When it comes to merchandising, Maddaus makes weekly changes. “We don’t want to give customers the same look every time they come in. We want to inspire them with seasonally relative products and teach them ways to cook differently and expose them to produce they don’t usually go for.”
Kowalski’s Markets began nearly 40 years ago, when the Red Owl supermarket where Jim Kowalski worked went up for sale. The company sold conventional grocery items in the beginning, but around 1990, the founders wanted the brand to stand out. “They saw discounters in the market like Cub Foods and Rainbow Foods,” says Kris Kowalski Christiansen, chief executive and Jim and Mary Anne’s daughter. “My mom and dad saw a need for an upscale format that sold high-quality specialty items, and it evolved into what we are today.”
WALKING THE LAND
In line with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s annual Minnesota Grown program, Maddaus often invites Kowalski’s customers on a tour of Untiedt’s farm. “It allows customers to be exposed physically, emotionally and visually to where pretty much most of our local produce comes from. And it is a chance for customers to take their kids out to the field and pick raspberries, strawberries and carrots, and dig potatoes out of ground. Our customers love to be exposed to local agriculture and to see our company’s commitment to it,” he says.
That commitment also was recognized by Minnesota Grown, when the program named Kowalski’s Markets as its 2018 Retailer of the Year for outstanding marketing of state-grown product.
Maddaus wants customers to feel a deeper connection to their produce. “The tomato in my produce department is the same one they picked at the farm. It reinforces a value — that people care where their food comes from. It makes an emotional connection for our shoppers when they are in the store. If we could, we’d provide local product 365 days of the year, but we can’t control the weather. When winter shows up in Minnesota, it’s hard to grow corn.”
Staff members (called stakeholders at Kowalski’s) also visit farms, locally and out of town, to be able to be better informed, says Terri Bennis, chief merchandising officer at Kowalski’s. “We sent produce managers to Costa Rica to see where our pineapples are being grown and learn about how products get to the produce department. When they’re able to go to the farm and talk to the producers, you never know what can come from those visits. And then they can better articulate those points to our customers.”