story by Jennifer West
So are Wednesday night family dinners out so you can hold a managers’ meeting. It’s how things roll at Main Street Market in Egg Harbor, where four generations work side by side at what has become one of the most eclectic grocery stores in the Door.
It all started with Dave and Vonnie Callsen, who wanted to escape the corporate world via life as entrepreneurs.
“I was a paper boy at age 10 or 12 in Madison,” Dave explains, “and you used to have to buy your own papers and sell them. You learned a lot about business in those days.”
With that memory in his back pocket, Dave decided to abandon the hustle and bustle of Chicagoland business life—where he had worked in management training for AT&T—in exchange for a new life in Wisconsin. The duo returned to the state in search of a business opportunity, and what they found was a grocery store for sale in Valders (near Manitowoc), an owner who was ready to sell, and the perfect setting for a new life.
“I met with [the store owner] in the morning, took a ride around town with him, and by that night, we had a deal,” says Dave. “We bought a business and found out it was pretty interesting.”
In eight short years, the business was doing so well, the Calsens purchased land to build a new store.
Quality become the hallmark of the grocery store. Dave and Vonnie worked hard to offer fresh food, starting the first in-store bakery in the area and growing the meat business by emphasizing quality and fresh-cut options. Dave says he always had a butcher behind the meat counter.
Kaaren Northrop, the Callsens’ daughter, and her husband Steve, joined the Valders business. Steve learned about meat from the resident butcher, and Kaaren worked in various roles, learning alongside her parents.
And, then the family began looking for a weekend escape from the thriving business.
“My aunt and uncle had a cottage just north of Jacksonport,” says Dave. “I had been coming up here since I was kid, and we started vacationing up here after we were married.”
But the Door often has a particular effect on people: Short vacations turn to long vacations, which turn to a hunt for a second home, which turn to the whisper of an idea that this might be the place to begin a business and a life.
In 1987, after years of camping and spending family vacations on the Door, Dave and Vonnie decided it was time to put down roots in their second home and bring their grocery store experience with them, and Kaaren and Steve made the move with them. At the time, Egg Harbor wasn’t much more than a stop for tourists who were heading farther up the Door. The town didn’t have a centralized sanitation system, street lights or sidewalks, but it was actively seeking businesses such as a grocery. And, it had the type of space the Callsens needed.
“Egg Harbor has changed dramatically,” Dave laughs, remembering how he had to install two septic holding tanks when the store was first built. As the town grew and modernized, those tanks were quickly replaced by a sewer system, and Egg Harbor become less of a pass-through town and more of a destination.
And with that, came the variety of customers the Callsens were hoping for. That variety in clientele quickly translated into a diverse selection of wines, beers, meats, cheeses, local products, specialty foods and more as Main Street Market evolved into the eclectic grocery it’s known as today.
“We never tried to be the cheapest place in the county,” says Dave, “but we felt like if we had quality and variety and customer service, we could do well.”
The market quickly adopted the principle that if someone wanted something, the market would stock it. Just bring in a label, a can, a bottle and the store staff would track it down.
Their weirdest request?
“Seaweed,” says Dave, although he’s quick to admit the market now carries it regularly. “We get weird requests for beer, too, and we’ve gotten to the point where we find beer from all over the world. We have beers I didn’t even know existed.
“People come to us because they know we have a larger selection of items than what you’d find in a common store or even a large box store. People expect that. If we don’t have something, people tell us about it.”
Since opening, the store has gone through several expansions, including the addition of a deli, bakery and fresh produce section. It’s also gained a few family employees.
Kaaren is now the day-to-day operations manager, coordinating each department and managing the specialty ordering. Steve is the meat manager, heading up a department that Dave says is a “huge” part of the business, especially during the holidays.
“We have a wall back there that’s about 10-feet-by-7-feet, and there’s nothing else on that wall except orders and little notes,” Dave says.
But there’s always order in the chaos, and Steve knows exactly what needs to be done with those little slips of paper. During the summer hours and really busy times of year, he’s in the shop by 3 or 4 a.m., getting organized, setting up the meat case and handling customer needs.
And then there’s Sam Northrop, third generation, who handles the massive variety of wine and beer. Sam grew up working in the grocery and then went off to school at UW-Green Bay. Dave says they all agreed he should do something else, but keeping Sam away from the grocery proved impossible.
“He loves Door County and the activities, and he loves the business,” Dave says of Sam. “After working a year in Green Bay, he was ready to get back to Door County and work. It’s been fun for him, and he’s doing a good job with it.”
And back to that baby bottle warmer on Dave’s desk and the playpen sharing his office … those belong to Leona, the newest member of the Main Street Market family. As Sam and Missy Northrop’s daughter, she makes up the fourth generation.
At this year’s New Year’s parade in Egg Harbor, the family marched together, holding hand-written signs that declared which generation they were part of. Leona brought up the rear of the parade, with a fourth-generation sign pinned smartly to her stroller.
And that’s how a family grocery store marks its 30th year in business: by sticking together.