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Kowalski's Market builds on its reputation

Kowalski's employee Nina Feucht prepares a made-to-order pasta dish for Na Lu of Woodbury. The fresh pasta bar is among store offerings tailored toward convenience. Scott Wente / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Kowalski's Market has been in Woodbury since its August 2000 opening. The store at Radio Drive and Valley Creek Road is among 11 Kowalski's locations in the Twin Cities. Scott Wente / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

When Kowalski's Market opened in Woodbury in 2000, among its eye-catching features were specialty offerings such as order-to-go meals and a high-end oil and vinegar station.

While some of the early items are no longer offered, others are in their place.

That is part of the store's success, Kowalski's leaders say: It has established a niche and reputation for high-quality products, but it adapts to shifting consumer preferences and grocery trends.

"It's just so crazy how much has changed and evolved," said Laurie Bell, Kowalski's marketing manager.

Bell was referring to what's within the market, but the sentiment also could apply to what's outside the store. The local Kowalski's opened 17 years ago as growth was ramping up in Woodbury. The community's demographics were appealing for the upscale grocer, and the city was poised for even more growth.

The location's visibility at Radio Drive and Valley Creek Road was good, too.

"It just seemed like ... Woodbury was a place that people went to even if they didn't live there," Bell said.

Woodbury was the fourth Kowalski's location in the Twin Cities, but it is among the largest and serves as company headquarters. It opened with a salon and an in-store Starbuck's, among other features. It was the company's first store to unveil a new appearance, a stepped-up decor and ambiance compared to other chain grocery stores.

"It's when we really started that Tuscan look," Bell said.

The company certainly has grown from its 1983 founding by Jim and Mary Anne Kowalski at a location on St. Paul's Grand Avenue. Jim died in 2013, but Mary Anne continues to run the company with daughter Kris Kowalski Christiansen, the chief operating officer.

Beyond selling items common in any area grocery store, Kowalski's has found some of its success comes in the specialty items it prepares, oversees or produces itself. Kowalski's has its own commissary and bakery in Shoreview to provide certain fresh items to its stores daily, and there are fewer partner business operations within the supermarket.

"The things that we can execute do really well in the store," Bell said. Kowalski's continues to expand its deli menu, offering more items appealing to consumers' increasing demand for convenient and healthy food. There is a fresh pasta bar, a salad bar and a soup bar. Kowalski's recently launched an app that allows consumers to order deli items on their cellphone and have them delivered to their car when they arrive at the store. The mobile curbside delivery option started at the Woodbury store.

Kowalski's has operated a "Good Foods for Good Health" nutrition program since 2008, partnering with a nutritionist and using signage to mark certain items in the store that are part of the program.

Kowalski's also has teamed with local entrepreneurs around the Twin Cities and Wisconsin, helping to feature their food.

"We're still kind of the small guy, too," Bell said. "We've helped many, many through that process of getting to be retail ready and then getting ready to launch their product in the store."

As Woodbury has grown since Kowalski's opened its doors, so too has the number of competitors in the city. There are close to a dozen stores selling groceries with another — Costco — soon to open.

It's size has helped Kowalski's to hold its own in competitive markets.

"What's great is we are a smaller company (and) we don't have those big corporate ladders that need to be climbed," Bell said, "so we can move pretty quickly on something."

What's next for Kowalski's? More change, Bell predicted.

"We're always changing; we're never really satisfied with the status quo," she said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

(651) 459-7600
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