James Kowalski, founder of grocery chain, dies on fishing trip

  • Article by: MIKE HUGHLETT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 6, 2013 - 1:15 PM

Police in Ontario said he was outside of float plane as it was taxiing.

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Jim and Mary Ann Kowalski in February 2009.

Photo: Dick Youngblood, Dick Youngblood

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James Kowalski, who built the Twin Cities chain of nine supermarkets bearing his name, died Thursday in an accident while on a fishing trip in Canada.

The accident occurred in a float plane on an Ontario lake but did not involve a crash, said Deb Kowalski, a family member and a Kowalski’s employee, declining to give further details. The other occupant of the plane, an old friend, was not hurt.

A report late Thursday night from Ontario Provincial Police indicated Kowalski was outside the Cessna float plane as it was taxiing to shore on an isolated lake, about 20 miles south of the town of Red Lake and nearly 300 miles northwest of Thunder Bay. The investigation is ongoing and the cause of death hasn’t been determined, Ontario Provincial Constable David Lamme said.

He said Ontario police in Red Lake were called to the remote lake at 10:30 a.m. on a report that a man had been injured. By the time police arrived, Kowalski had been flown to the Red Lake airport, where paramedics were waiting. But Lemme said Kowalski was dead when he arrived.

Kowalski, 67, created Kowalski’s Markets, a small upscale chain that has thrived even as the grocery business has become increasingly competitive and dominated by giant national players. The Woodbury-based company tripled in size between the late 1980s and late 2000s.

It began in 1983 with a single store, a former Red Owl, on Grand Avenue in St. Paul.

“Jim Kowalski started his grocery life working for Red Owl,” said John Dean, a Twin Cities supermarket consultant. “He did an excellent job for them and ended up buying a store from the Red Owl group as it disbanded. Jim said it was a store nobody else wanted.”

He and his wife, Mary Anne, made it work and opened a second supermarket in White Bear Lake. Today, there also are Kowalski’s outlets in Eagan, Eden Prairie, Woodbury and Oak Park Heights, along with two stores in south Minneapolis and one in the city’s Uptown area. The company particularly expanded in the 2000s.

“They did well with site selection and added stores with slow methodical growth,” said David Livingston, a Wisconsin-based supermarket analyst. “It’s been a very well-managed company. They’ve been able to survive the changes in the market.”

Dean said Kowalski’s is a true family business and that Jim “was the cornerstone.” His wife is a co-owner, and his daughter Kris Kowalski Christiansen is the company’s chief operating officer.

The supermarket business has been a brutal battleground in recent years as national chains like Wal-Mart and Target have expanded. Some traditional industry players have been hurt badly, including Eden Prairie-based Supervalu, which sold half its assets earlier this year.

But Kowalski’s occupies a supermarket niche — along with Twin Cities grocery stalwarts Lunds and Byerly’s — that has positioned it above the middle-market fray.

Kowalski’s stores sport a European market atmosphere, for instance, and have long been known for high-quality meat and fruits and vegetables.

The company was the first to bring Boar’s Head deli meats, popular on the East Coast, to the Twin Cities. And it’s well known for its support of Minnesota brands, from grass-fed beef to locally made butter.

“If local vendors can supply a quality product, we will supply the stage,” Kowalski told the Star Tribune in a 2009 interview.

Kowalski’s was also an early adopter of the trend toward preparing food in the store to take home, Dean said. A typical Kowalski’s is teeming with everything from soups to elaborate salads to sushi.

“Jim was a visionary and he certainly will be missed,” Dean said.

 

Staff writer Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report. Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003

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