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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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In Milwaukee Buzz

Mike Koppa launched an online store earlier this month.

In Milwaukee Buzz

Neil loves it.

Catching up with Fulbeli Deli founder Mike Koppa in Viroqua endeavors


Mike Koppa moved to Viroqua from Milwaukee in 2004, but he left his stamp on the city in many ways that remain today.

While living in Milwaukee, Koppa created scores of materials from invitations to postcards to chapbooks on his old-school printing press. But he was best known, perhaps, for his work at Koppa's Farwell Foods and Fulbeli Deli, 1940 N. Farwell Ave.

Koppa's family owned the grocery store and deli for 25 years. They sold the business earlier this year. He worked there – with a multiple-year break during college – from 1982 until 2001. His leadership and marketing design style became synonymous with the quirky grocery store's culture from the circle K T-shirts to the humorous and sarcastic signage.

"At the grocery store, a huge part of what we did was mock superfluous and aggressive marketing. 'World's Best Sandwiches' pretty well sums that up. I mean, really," says Koppa. "I had a lot of fun there in the 90s with my friends and family, and in the end I left because it came down to buying it from my dad – with my brother – or moving on, and suddenly it just didn't feel right to stay. I guess I would say I was following my heart."

Koppa's brother, Ken, bought the store in a partnership with his friend, Pete Schmidt, and they continued to own it for another 10 years.

"I think what ultimately happened to Ken was just about the same as what happened to me. He just realized he didn't want to be there forever, and that he was put on this Earth to do something other than run a grocery store," says Koppa.

The new owner of the store, Sunny Shah, has kept much of Koppa's vision intact.

"I haven't been back since, but I am told it remains largely the same, and that Sunny intends to keep on the path we were taking and maintain a fun atmosphere and a great deli menu and all the other things that make Koppa's what it is: living performance art."

In 2001, Koppa and his wife, Vicki, bought their property as a getaway place in Viroqua, a town of about 5,000 people that's three hours west of Milwaukee. Viroqua is located in what is sometimes called the "driftless region" because it escaped the glaciers and is, therefore, very hilly.

"Driftless" is a word that Koppa includes on many of his T-shirt, sticker and magnet designs.

In 2004, Koppa, his wife and two children moved to Viroqua full-time after he accepted a graphic design job at Organic Valley.

"As the years passed, Vicki and I wished more and more that we could relocate. The job offer from Organic Valley literally came hours after I quit my last job as a server at a Brady Street restaurant. I was struggling to figure out what to do with my life at that time, and then I got that phone call, months after I had interviewed for the job. I had totally written it off. The timing was incredible," says Koppa.

While working at Organic Valley, Koppa designed a green T-shirt that read "Go Family Farms" inside a circle. He later went to Farm Aid in St. Louis and performer Neil Young was wearing the shirt onstage.

Young was originally wearing another T-shirt, but mid-set he said it was "time for a change.

"Like Superman, he tore open the chest on the red shirt to reveal the 'Go' shirt underneath, invited Willie (Nelson) on stage to play 'Homegrown' and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I was completely jaw-dropped. Greatest achievement of my life. Maybe always will be," says Koppa.

Organic Valley later gave him permission after he left to sell un-branded versions of the shirt through his own business.

Viroqua, he says, has been very inspiring to him on multiple levels.

"I remember during the first few weeks of living here I had a moment of huge relief. I realized I no longer had to read any billboards, no more daily news, no more bright and shiny things, if you will, and I thought, 'Wow. I have my thoughts back,'" says Koppa.

A couple of weeks ago, Koppa launched a new online store called Viroqua Creative Workshop of products he designed including organic T-shirts, stickers, magnets and a 2014 lunar phase calendar. In 2014, books, collage art and "other stuff" will also be available.

In 2011, Koppa bought a cemetery lettering business, so for the past couple of years he has spent the spring, summer and fall months driving a 60-mile radius around Viroqua to add the date of death to cemetery markers of the recently deceased.

"It is an incredibly peaceful job and I sometimes I find myself amazed that this is where my path led me. I could not be more content, and more grateful for the blessings in my life," says Koppa.

Viroqua has been a draw for Milwaukeeans for decades.

"Many years ago, in the late '60s and '70s, a lot of those Brady Street East Siders relocated to this area during a 'back to the land' movement. They're still here. As a result, among the long-time established farm families in the region, we also have an established progressive food and farming community," says Koppa.

Koppa says there are a lot of very creative and productive things happening in the Viroqua area.

Viroqua has the largest per-capita organic acreage in the United States. The Organic Valley farmers' cooperative headquarters is the largest organic farming cooperative in the U.S. It is also home to a large and thriving food cooperative, Viroqua Food Co-op.

The town has a community radio station: WDRT. Every Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon Koppa hosts a program called "Mister Koppa's Neighborhood."

"It's a beautiful place to visit for people interested in slowing down and taking a long, clean breather away from city life," says Koppa. "It's a quiet place to enjoy all the silent sports. You might say we get excited about the lack of excitement around here."


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