City plans for long-awaited grocery store downtown

By Hannah Weikel - Freeman Staff

July 27, 2017

 City planners working to bring in a grocery store to downtown Waukesha say people are looking for fresh produce and healthy choices, something like what’s offered in the produce department at Fresh Thyme Market in Brookfield.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Bolden

WAUKESHA — Downtown business owners, employees and residents are clamoring for a market or grocery store in the downtown area that offers fresh, organic food and grab-and-go lunches — and city planners are working to meet those needs in the near future.

Imagine a small market in the old Horse Emporium building or where Panos used to be, within walking distance of just about everything downtown, that has a healthy selection of fresh fruits and vegetables and a separate register for deli sandwiches and salads. Maybe, a meat counter and dairy cooler with milk and cheeses to grab on the way home from work.

The city’s planning department is in the process of reaching out to more independent and regional grocers who might be interested in expanding their business to downtown and showing them a number of vacant properties that could be a perfect site for a small market.

A consultant has also been hired to study demographics, spending capacity and grocery shopping preferences of downtown workers and residents, which will be compiled into a report in the next couple of weeks, said Jennifer Andrews, community development director.

Several grocers have recently visited Waukesha to see vacant properties downtown that could house a small market or grocery store after a city survey found that residents downtown and across the city think the single biggest thing missing downtown is a place to stock up on things like health foods, meat, produce and cheese.

Those studies have also found that grocery stores on the outskirts of town just don’t cut it for workers and residents at the heart of Waukesha.

“There is a need for groceries downtown even though we have Meijer and Woodman’s close by,” said Sally Kahlfeldt, small business and special project coordinator, explaining that trekking to those stores during the lunch hour is overwhelming. “You have to walk across the whole store to find the pizza aisle and it’s too much when people are in a hurry.”

Convenience and the ability to walk is key for people who would be stopping by during lunch or after work to pick up something quick, Kahlfeldt said. But people are desperate for something a little bigger than an average Kwik Trip.

This spring, city planners conducted a downtown survey that found respondents’ desire for a grocery store far outpaced the need for any other convenience merchandise or personal services store downtown. Forty-seven percent of respondents living downtown said a grocery store is missing and over 75 percent of citywide respondents said the same.

Andrews said the development of an empty storefront into a grocery store could attract other businesses and residents downtown, which would help with economic growth.

Bigger grocery stores , like the Sentry Foods that closed over a decade ago, aren’t likely to survive downtown when there are big-box competitors like Woodman’s, Target and Meijer just a couple miles away, but a specialized market that caters to the need for convenience and healthy food downtown could be just what people are looking for.