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Grocery throwbacks: Service, specialty foods keep family-owned stores vibrant

Jennifer Rude Klett, Special to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

When the fourth Thursday of November rolls around, Alexis Sullivan of Milwaukee knows one store where she’ll be making an important stop: Rupena’s Fine Foods at 7641 W. Beloit Road in West Allis.

“We host Thanksgiving, and their stuffed turkeys and side of stuffing is always the best part of the meal,” said the married mom to three college students. “Their stuffing goes back a few generations in the Rupena family.  . . . Christmas tradition is either their standing prime rib or stuffed beef tenderloin.”

Despite a brutally competitive retail food climate, some local groceries, like Rupena’s, have found a way to thrive during an age of impersonal big-box stores and powerful mega websites.

These underdogs survive because they fill a niche in the food chain, offering choice foods, personalized customer service, catering and ready-to-eat items along with specialty, ethnic and local products. They are part of the eat-local, shop-local mindset that provides southeastern Wisconsin with its unique sense of place.

In some cases, generations of families have turned to them for everyday foods and especially when hosting holidays and other celebratory meals.

In that way, these stores have helped shape our traditions.

There are a number of such stores in the Milwaukee area; today we look at just a few.

Some of the original local groceries have been continuously owned and operated by the same family. Rupena’s is one of them.

Opened in 1923, it is now owned by John and Priscilla Rupena.

“This business is third-generation and still alive,” said Maria Rupena Karczewski, president and hands-on overseer of everything in the store.

Rupena’s is known for its fresh meats, seasonings, homemade salads and bakery, fresh produce and catering, according to Karczewski. They employ 11 full-time butchers who readily chat with customers. If you don’t see what you need in the deli, their chefs will make it for you.

“We don’t tell the customer where an item is, we show them where it is,” said grocery manager Russ Werner.

Sullivan, a nurse at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, said Rupena’s level of customer service is hard to find these days. “I have never been disappointed,” she said.

Fifth-generation grocers

Another historic grocery run by original family members is Metcalfe’s Market at 6700 W. State St. in Wauwatosa. Metcalfe’s originally opened in Butler in 1917, more than a century ago during the First World War.

The family also owns two stores in Madison. All three stores are currently run by fourth-generation Tim and Kevin Metcalfe, with fifth-generation Amanda working as employee development director.

Metcalfe’s emphasizes local products, organic produce and high-quality deli meats and cheeses. It also offers fully prepared holiday items, either complete dinners or side dishes such as its Door County cherry and apricot wild rice dressing and maple-roasted sweet potatoes made with local ingredients.

Local products are easy to spot in the store; Metcalfe’s signature green and white “food miles” signs lists the town of origin and the number of miles it traveled.

“Spending their dollars locally and supporting locally owned businesses are both important to our shoppers,” said Kevin Metcalfe. “We also provide service that you won’t find at many big-box stores, like being able to talk with a butcher about what cut of meat works best for your recipe. Or asking someone at our seafood counter about the difference between farm-raised and wild-caught fish.” 

Soon they’ll be adding pickup and delivery services to compete with online grocery sales, Metcalfe added.

Metcalfe’s stores are larger than some of the locally owned specialty groceries; the Tosa store has 60,000 square feet.

“Instead of stopping at a butcher shop, cheese shop, nutritional products store, bakery, big box retailer and the farmers market – just swing into Metcalfe’s,” he said. Metcalfe’s also offers online shopping.

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Jennifer Rude Klett is a Wisconsin freelance writer of history, food and Midwestern life. Contact her at jrudeklett.com.

Michelle Berryman