Tom and Gen Wiczek typify the “Mom and Pop” of neighborhood grocery stores. Mom and Pop grocery stores were sprinkled throughout Morrison County, Minnesota, and especially among the residential neighborhoods of Little Falls, the county seat. Tom and Gen owned Pine Grove Grocery, one of the longest-running Mom and Pop grocery stores in Little Falls. The store was located on the west side of the city, near Pine Grove Park.
The first indication of a grocery store located at 1109 West Broadway was found in the 1928 Little Falls City Directory. At the time, Albert Thienes was listed as the owner. The Pine Grove Grocery name first appeared in the 1932 phone directory, but an owner’s name isn’t apparent. By 1938, Marcus “Mark” J. Gunderson and his wife, Mattie, owned the store. Mark had previously owned a grocery store in Elmdale Township. He passed away in 1950. 1n 1953, the name of the store became Kelly’s Pine Grove Grocery. Nothing is known about the “Kelly” of the name. According to the 1958 phone directory, the store became Knutson’s Pine Grove Grocery. Earl and Esther Knutson operated the store for a number of years. When they retired, they sold the store to Gen and Tom Wiczek. An article dated April 18, 1966 in the Little Falls Daily Transcript notes the sale.
Thus began the Wiczeks’ reign as Mom and Pop to their customers, all of whom (with the exception of the gypsies) were their favorites, according to Gen. Children knew Pine Grove Grocery for its penny candy. As if penny candy wasn’t enough of a deal, sometimes Gen gave children candy for free. The candy was such a draw for neighborhood children that one day a two-and-a-half year old girl came to the store. Gen, who was acquainted with the girl from previous visits, asked if her mother knew she was at the store. The girl claimed that she did, but Gen called her mother anyway and discovered that the family was frantically looking for her.
Adults patronized Pine Grove Grocery for several reasons. One of them was Tom’s meat counter. Tom ground hamburger, cut meat, and made herring for the store. Because of its quality, the herring was even sent to customers in Greece. Pine Grove Grocery supplied meat to Charlie’s Pizza in Little Falls for years. In addition to the meat counter, Gen and Tom met their customers’ needs to the best of their abilities. Like any good mother, Gen gave cooking tips and recipes to her customers. She and Tom took special orders for items they didn’t stock. They also kept buckwheat grits on hand for the large Polish community that had settled on the west side of town and throughout the county. Like most neighborhood grocery stores, Tom and Gen took orders over the phone, allowed customers to buy on credit, and made deliveries. They made regular deliveries to Pine Grove Manor and Alverna Apartments, both housing facilities for senior citizens.
Tom and Gen spent the majority of their time working in the store. When they started the business, the store was open seven days a week from eight o’clock in the morning until nine o’clock at night. After a while, they cut an hour off their day and worked until 8:00 p.m. These hectic days eased a bit toward the end of the Wiczek’s operation of the store when they stopped working on Sundays and changed their hours to 8:00 a.m. through 6:00 p.m.
During their long hours at the store, the Wiczeks enlisted the help of their four children, Danny, Darlene, Cindy, and Mary. The children were the reason Tom and Gen bought Pine Grove Grocery. Prior to becoming grocers, Tom worked at Camp Ripley and Gen worked for Sears and they were ready for a change. They also wanted to be home when their children left for and came home from school. The Wiczeks’ home was attached to the grocery store, quite convenient for their plan.
The fact that the house was attached to the store by a door behind the meat counter was not so convenient when the gypsies came by. Gen remembered this as the most unusual event to occur at Pine Grove Grocery. One day, a group of gypsies, wearing long coats and skirts and speaking their own unintelligible language, paid the Wiczeks a visit. Tom was at the meat counter and Gen was at the cash register. Only the gypsy women came into the store. The men stayed in the car. Gen had a feeling that the women were there to steal things. She also thought that they might want to get into the house through the door behind the meat counter. The gypsies kept trying to get Tom to leave the meat counter. Gen, using silent signals, indicated to Tom that he should stay put. She did not want the gypsies in the house. Tom and Gen held their posts and after some time, the gypsies finally left.
Gen and Tom operated Pine Grove Grocery until November 1999. Gen said that it didn’t pay to stay in business because of the competition from larger grocery stores. Shortly after Tom and Gen closed the store, new owners bought the building and had it torn down. The attached house still stands as do memories of Mom and Pop Wiczek’s ownership of the Pine Grove Grocery.
by Mary Warner
Copyright 2003, Morrison County Historical Society