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Downtown Grocery cultivates awareness,
promotes 'buy-local' movements

By Brian Reisinger
Wausau Daily Herald, Front Page
November 30, 2009

The folks at Downtown Grocery believe they offer shoppers something relatively distinct. Their rows of fresh produce and shelves of goods largely are produced locally and often organically, and that has built them a reputation among those in the buy-local movement and others who frequent downtown Wausau.

But the economy hit Downtown Grocery just as it has most everyone else.

Co-owner Kevin Korpela said sales fell about 10 percent from mid-2008 to late 2008, when the national recession deepened. One year later, the store's owners have brought sales back up through growing awareness, paying greater attention to what's popular in their inventory and other measures -- and they have cut costs.

Korpela, an architect who opened the store in 2006 with farmer Blaine Tornow, sat down at a counter in the back of the store to talk with the Wausau Daily Herald about his business and the buy-local movement.

Question: So tell us about Downtown Grocery, because it's different from other food stores, correct?
Korpela: Well, yeah, the concept for Downtown Grocery is to provide one more unique business for downtown Wausau. Yet adding to that, how can we work to grow, nurture and support the local food and farm economy while providing a good place for a bowl of soup and a sandwich and, on the way home, a bag of sweet potatoes and a carton of milk? ... It is more time-intensive to work toward (buying local and organic products), because we ... need to take more time and effort to coordinate the acquisition as well as then the delivery of products for our store.

Question: A perception out there is that buying local can be more expensive, and that it's something people who don't mind spending a little bit more will do. Is that a fair characterization?
Korpela: Well, no, you don't necessarily need to spend more to eat local. I think life is a series of choices, and those choices have particular values behind them. I can state a number of things, we have certain products ... perhaps maybe it's more or less than something else, though because in many cases we're buying direct from, say, the dairy, that more of those dollars are going straight to the dairy versus going through a middle man, another party who's the buyer and the wholesaler. (Customers also can receive discounts by preordering specific items, saving the store and themselves money).

Question: Why should people think about buying local or organic?
Korpela: The choices that we make are very complex. We're all busy with our lives and all the activities (of) our spouses and our children. But ... what amount of those priorities include eating food that was prepared and grown by farmers and producers that are looking to make choices in their farming practices to limit pesticides, to limit chemicals, to look at the grazing patterns of their cattle ... and what are the values that we place on that?

Question: What do you think is happening to the buy-local movement?
Korpela: Beginning in I think 2007, notions of the shop local -- what local means -- I think began to reverberate in this community. Not due to us, just due to the changing awareness of the things that are around us. ... I think the Downtown Grocery provided an example of a business that had those notions at its core.

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