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Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008

Friendly and Familiar

Groppi’s neighborhood ties

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It has a unique identity. It has a following. It has soul. G. Groppi Food Market seems to exist in contrast to nearly every aspect of the national supermarket behemoths.

With 95 years behind it, Groppi's is a South Side institution with a solid connection to a time when things were a little slower, a little more familiar.

In the early 1900s, Giocondo and Giorgina Groppi emigrated from Lucca, Italy, to the South Side of Milwaukee, where they settled their family and opened a food market at the corner of Russell and Wentworth avenues in the Bay View neighborhood. With the help of their 13 children, the Groppi family's market served as the neighborhood's hub, a destination that met the community's needs, both practical and social. The corner market survived the dawning of the larger, more modern grocery store chains, but couldn't survive the death of Mario Groppi in 2002. The store closed in January of 2003. But Mario's brothers, Louis and Tommy, knew that Mario had a buyer in mind, should they decide to sell.

John Nehring grew up in the neighborhood and developed a fondness for the corner store and the people who ran it. Though he didn't work at Groppi's, Nehring did go into the grocery business, first as a bagger, then working his way up to a thorough understanding of the industry. In 2000, Nehring and Mario Groppi were reacquainted. Over the course of their friendship, they made an informal agreement that Nehring would buy the market if Mario wished to sell. In September 2003, Nehring and his wife, Anne, purchased the South Side institution, adding it to their repertoire of businesses: V. Richards in Brookfield, Nehring's Sendik's on Oakland, J.P.'s Caf in Shorewood, and Tres Bon Catering.

"I felt it was really important to keep the integrity and flavor of the store the way it was," Nehring explains. While he brought the electrical, plumbing and refrigeration up to date, Nehring kept many things the same. Rather than toss out the old meat case and cooler, he refurbished them, spending more money repairing them than it would have cost to buy them new. The worn wood floors, as well as the candy and bakery cases, date back to the early 1900s.

Shopping at a brand-new supermarket isn't unpleasant by default, but with parking lots the size of football fields, sterile lighting, indifferent employees and 50,000 square feet to navigate just to find a jar of capers, it's not exactly inspiring. Groppi's follows a more laid-back mentality, one that inherently encourages neighbors to stop and chat with one another in the narrow aisles while shopping for that evening's dinner.

Customers can purchase produce and basic grocery items, as well as freshly made salads, panini and specialty sandwiches. They can order an assortment of platters, box lunches, hot and chilled hors d'oeuvres, side dishes and entrees. The bakery case is stocked with an array of colorful, indulgent treats like chocolate towers and sugar cookies adorned with Italian flags of frosting. A good part of the meat case is devoted to sausage, ranging from Polish and Italian to coils of Saltisa sausage, a breakfast and holiday sausage seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg, and specialty sausage made from ingredients like turkey, sage and mushroom. For those die-hard loyalists who won't buy Groppi's trademark sausage from someone other than a Groppi, rest assured: Nehring bought the Groppis' secret sausage recipe when he bought the store. Louis Groppi still drops in to make sure the Nehrings haven't pulled away from the recipe whatsoever.

Groppi's free wine-tastings on Fridays have become a weekly ritual for some of the neighbors. "Groppi's really ties the neighborhood together," Nehring says. "That's part of the reason they shop there, because they don't ever want to see it go. They want it to be a part of the neighborhood forever."

Located at 1441 S. Russell Ave. (414) 747-9012. Open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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