by Terrie Ellerbee/associate editor
Mr. James Kowalski, founder of the Kowalski’s chain of nine stores, died Thursday following an accident in a float plane. Mr. Kowalski, who was 67 years old, was on a fishing trip in Canada. No one else was hurt.
According to reports, Kowalski was standing on the float of the small plane on a northern Ontario lake when he lost his balance and fell into the propeller and was killed.
The sudden loss of Jim Kowalski has hit the St. Paul, Minn., community hard. He and his wife Mary Anne founded the local, nine-store Kowalski’s Market chain. Their daughter Kris is COO for the company.
Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association (MGA), tells The Shelby Report that the Kowalskis were a very tight-knit family and that she couldn’t “tout enough what a relevant member of the community he was, both from the industry standpoint and the community at large.
The Kowalskis have received high honors in the grocery industry. In 2002, the Women Grocers Association, which is part of the National Grocers Association, named Mary Anne Woman of the Year and, in 1990, the MGA named Jim Grocer of the Year.
“He was just an incredible visionary with such a passion for the industry,” Pfuhl says. She choked back tears when she shared that numerous people in the grocery industry have been in touch with her as news of the tragedy spread.
“Everyone I’ve spoken with continually says that he’s a one of a kind and you’re blessed to have had the opportunity to have known him,” she says. “I’m close with the family. It kind of takes your breath away and leaves you with a plenty heavy heart.”
The Kowalskis have been active with the MGA. Mary Anne is a former member of MGA’s board of directors and Kris now serves on the board.
Pfuhl says Jim Kowalski made a real impact, “advancing civic infrastructure and making sure that his employees had every benefit and opportunity.”
Pfuhl adds that he “really lived within the St. Paul community where he started his first grocery store and never left.” He truly was a “homegrown grocer,” she says.
Kowalski was working for Red Owl in the 1980s when he and Mary Anne bought a store the chain was operating on Grand Avenue in St. Paul.
In March 1986, the Kowalskis bought another Red Owl Country Store in White Bear Lake and converted it to a Kowalski’s Market. The company added a central bakery facility in 1991 that could supply the store in White Bear Township.
In Woodbury, in August 2000, the Kowalskis opened the first Kowalski’s Market that was built from the ground up. Designed to look like a European village, it featured a glass-walled bakery oven, three restaurant concepts, a department store-quality gift shop, an educational and meeting area and a “Natural Path” department offering organic and natural foods and homeopathic remedies. The company’s website states that people in the grocery industry came from all over the world to see it.
In April 2002, the Kowalskis bought the GJ’s Supervalu chain from friends and remodeled the stores. In 2004, the company expanded to the Minneapolis suburbs with the acquisition of Driskill’s New Market in Eden Prairie and, in 2005, the Kowalskis opened a market in Stillwater/Oak Park Heights. The most recent store was added in November 2008 in Eagan.