On its 40th anniversary, Kowalski’s remains committed to being a civic-minded neighborhood grocer

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Officially, Kris Kowalski Christiansen is the chief executive officer of the grocery store her parents, Mary Anne and Jim Kowalski, started 40 years ago in St. Paul.

But still. Even after years in the role, something about that title doesn’t feel quite right.

“We never viewed ourselves as chain, or corporate,” she said. “(Mom) and Dad always taught us, we’re a neighborhood grocer. We just stayed small in how we viewed ourselves.”

That neighborhood ethos — spending time in their own stores, not growing too fast, prioritizing a business’s civic role in the community — is partly what’s kept Kowalski’s Markets around for four decades, Kris and Mary Anne said. The business now has 11 stores around the Twin Cities.

The Kowalski family buys their groceries there, too, of course.

“We’re consumers,” Kris said. “We just want to bring an experience to people that we would want to have.”

“A common-sense neighborhood kind of thing”

Growing up in St. Paul, Jim Kowalski and then-Mary Anne Oase were “neighborhood kids,” Mary Anne said.

They married at 19. Jim worked in management at Red Owl, the grocery store chain that was once ubiquitous in the Midwest. The job bounced them from city to city, from Faribault to Chippewa Falls, Wis., where Mary Anne earned a counseling certificate and worked at a clinic.

Finally, Jim was transferred back to the Twin Cities and eventually promoted into a corporate role in the franchising division. When Red Owl began to spin off its corporate-owned stores in the Twin Cities to sell as franchises, in the early 1980s, Jim and Mary Anne knew the business and were ready to take a leap.

Kowalski’s Markets began in 1983 as Kowalski’s Red Owl, a franchise of the then-local chain, shown in this semi-colorized photo from the early 1980s. The store was owned by Jim and Mary Anne Kowalski. (Courtesy Kowalski’s Markets)

They bought the store on Grand Avenue — where both their families had long shopped — and redesigned it. Reorganized it. Rethought the way the store interacted with the community.

They renamed it, too: Kowalski’s Red Owl.

“All we hoped was to make our mortgage payment on the house,” Mary Anne Kowalski said. “We just knew you had to be kind, you had to be good, you had to be nice to people. There just was a common-sense neighborhood kind of thing, and that’s how we ran the store. And that worked.”

At the time, their daughter, Kris, was 16. She was a three-sport high school athlete — and, probably like most teenagers, not exactly enthused about the grocery business, she joked. But hey, her parents’ grocery store meant guaranteed jobs for herself and her friends.

“Then prom came, and they all wanted off,” Mary Anne said. “So we had a bit of trouble then!”

Eventually, the Kowalskis’ store began to turn a profit, and the couple made a deal with Red Owl to acquire two more stores. By the early 1990s, the family had a few locations — now fully their own — and were getting more ambitious with their products. They’d earned some recognition, too, including a “grocer of the year” honor from the Minnesota Grocers Association.

Terri Bennis, now the company’s merchandising director, started as a deli manager in 1993. Jim sent her coast to coast, she said — searching for new specialty foods, trends and brands to bring back to the Twin Cities so Kowalski’s Markets could stand out.

She met with olive growers and cheese producers and figured out how to design the shops’ build-your-own Vietnamese pho bars, she said. Bennis and the Kowalskis would help small producers bring their products to market, from coaching them on insurance and labeling laws to fine-tuning their branding.

She recalled what Jim would tell her: “I just want to be the best deli in the Twin Cities, and I know you can make it happen,” he’d say. “I want people to feel something when they walk in that front door.”

Jim Kowalski died unexpectedly in 2013, and the family recommitted themselves to his legacy.

For Kris Kowalski Christiansen, the stores’ goal is that the level of care everyone shows, from her parents to company leaders to employees, should show through in really delicious food.

“At the end of the day, it’s the common sense, again, of what tastes good and what are the quality ingredients,” Kris said. “It’s about integrity and freshness and homemade — and butter. We use butter. A lot of butter.”

“How do you pass on a culture?”

In the early 2000s, Jim and Mary Anne took stock of their business.

The couple were in their 50s. By that point, Kris had earned an MBA and came back to work for her parents, taking on a variety of administrative roles

Mary Anne (left) and Jim Kowalski (right), founders/owners of Kowalski’s Supermarkets, with their daughter, Kris, the company’s chief operating officer, in the produce section of their newest store in Woodbury. (Pioneer Press file photo: Craig Borck)

Jim and Mary Anne trusted their daughter and knew they’d eventually pass the company to her — but they also knew that keeping a business in the family does not, on its own, guarantee it’ll succeed long-term.

“So many second-generation businesses fail because they’re sort of ‘mom and pop,’ and they weren’t able to leave any structure,” Mary Anne said. “The infrastructure wasn’t built.”

So the Kowalskis implemented a civic organizing program for employees, centered on ideals of active citizenship, shared decision-making and holding one another accountable. These are concepts Mary Anne had already been researching and advocating for a decade or so, she said; Kowalski’s Markets was an early partner of the the Midwest Active Citizenship Initiative.

The company’s Institutional Governing Document draws significantly from principles outlined by the Midwest Active Citizenship Initiative. The document calls on institutions to “sustain the democratic values of our society” and individuals to “govern for the common good and to be a co-producer of justice in the world.”

A companion document, the Civic Business Policy Agenda, is written in similar terms, calling on all business leaders to prioritize shared needs like sustainability over “narrow self-interest.” The company has also outlined decision-making standards, which are designed to ensure everyone who feels affected by a problem has a meaningful stake in solving it, Mary Anne said.

This program is not a cure-all: Employees at Kowalski’s stores are unionized through United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, and workers at several locations nearly went on strike this summer over claims of unfair labor practices. A few days before it was set to begin, the company and union reached a deal to grant workers pay raises and continued input into health care, and the strike was called off. In a recent conversation, Mary Anne and Kris declined to discuss specifics.

But Mary Anne said she values a productive dialogue with union representatives and believes in the power of the company’s civic organizing principles to guide relationships among employees, management and ownership.

Ultimately, these principles distill what has helped Kowalski’s stay successful for 40 years, she said — and what will lead the business for decades onward.

“How do you pass on a culture? And how do you pass on a culture without a language?” Mary Anne said. “And so this is our language. This is what it still is today — we have standards and practices and a way of making policy that includes every single employee.”

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