Community grocer

In the male-dominated grocery store industry, Mary Anne Kowalski, co-owner of Kowalski Markets, has found more than a niche in what she sees as her civic responsibility. 

Kowalski developed the interpersonal communication skills that she views as key to her success during the counseling career she launched in the 1970s. That career came about when she happened to spot information about training to become a peer counselor for a program that helped women access mental health treatment rather than simply being treated with drugs. “Women were being given Valium … the intention of the program was for women with life experience to help other women more than the drugs could,” Kowalski said. 

Kowalski worked in a small medical clinic for three years, leaving the job after deciding it was the right time to transfer her skills to the business world. She and husband, Jim, started with one St. Paul location, a Red Owl grocery store. Today the Kowalskis own a chain of eight stores. 

Initiatives such as buying locally, carrying fresh, natural products, educating customers about food, inviting community feedback and investing in long-term employees became priorities for Kowalski after a failed attempt at creating a space for women grocers to talk about the bias of the industry several years ago. The issues that troubled her most, both then and now, are the almost exclusively male ownership, how little female grocers are recognized and the inequalities that female grocers face. 

“I was a bra-burning feminist in the ’60s, but I’ve learned that’s not an effective way to get things done,” she said. She explained that the women grocers’ group didn’t go over due to lack of an infrastructure and a loss of interest on her part after a few unsuccessful meetings. 

Instead, Kowalski decided to focus on civic business efforts. Buying locally is one of her passions; she feels that the importance of supporting independent businesses, though not always the most economical way to do business, outweighs the bottom line. “We have a responsibility to educate people about food. Quality costs more to the consumer, but has paid off, and people are more democratic in how they shop,” she said. 

Kowalski has also brought her own experiences as a mother and consumer to her business. “I shopped every Saturday morning … I wanted fresher everything, more gourmet food and better jelly than traditional,” she said. Using that “mom experience” led to offering several candy-free checkout lanes in her stores, something that parents have told her they appreciate. 

Being married to her business partner has not always been easy for Kowalski. She said they both took a leap of faith, and occasionally they’ve taken the stress of owning a business out on each other. This was especially true in the beginning. “We were scared and moving fast, we had lots of debt and were at each other constantly. Once we realized this was working, we relaxed a lot,” she said. 

Like many leaders, Kowalski has learned as much from failures as she has from successes. In reflecting on her attempt to create the women grocers’ group, Kowalski said that though it failed, she learned that everything she needed to create change was within herself. 

“Through the civic business intuitive, I learned … that I could renew democracy from within,” she said.