By Mario Ziino Published Dec 17, 2003 at 5:44 AM Photography: Neil Kiekhofer of Front Room Photography

{image1}When John Nehring took his wife, Anne, a former Milwaukee Ballet principal dancer, back to his old neighborhood two years ago, one stop on this sentimental journey was to the corner grocery store where his mother used to send him with a shopping list.

The friendly smiles were still there to greet him when he walked through the doors. The pleasant smells of homemade sausage filled the store. So did the memories of growing up in Bay View.

Today, John is doing the greeting and he is making the sausage. And, Bay View, well, let's just say this community is grateful that its little market is back in business.

It wasn't too long ago, that a sign hung on the door at G. Groppi Food Market, located at 1441 E. Russell, that read, "It's time to retire." Sadly, after 90 years as a mainstay of the community, the grocery store closed last January.

Long gone are Giocondo and Giorgina Groppi, who founded this neighborhood staple of fresh fruit and vegetables in 1913. Lamentably gone, too, is Mario, who together was his brothers Tom and Louis, kept the traditions alive.

Fate must have brought Nehring back to his roots.

"I ran into Mario and we started talking," Nehring recalls of his visit. "We shared memories of his parents and growing up in the neighborhood. I told him, if he would ever want to sell, I'd be interested."

Perhaps his love of this little store led Nehring on his path in life. Together with his wife, Nehring, a former wine and gourmet food buyer at Sendik's in Shorewood, now owns six businesses, including Shorewood's Jean-Pierre's, a bakery and café, and Sommelier's Palette, a wine bar.

In 1998, they purchased East Side Sendik's. Last year, the Nehrings purchased Brookfield's V. Richards Market and its catering business, now called Tres Bon Catering.

Despite the demands on his busy schedule, Nehring recognized the need to save this neighborhood market which had meant so much to Bay View.

"Over the next few months, Mario and I talked on occasion," Nehring continues. "He was tired and really wanted to get out of the business. He told me that when he was ready, he'd sell it to me."

Happy with the news, Nehring respected Mario's wishes to ease out of the business in time. "I wasn't in a rush," he adds. "I knew that in time, he'd sell it to me."

Unfortunately, time was not so kind to Mario, who passed away in September 2002.

"I thought badly for him and the family," Nehring says. "But also, I thought that my dream to buy this place was gone, too."

Not so. Three months later, Nehring received a telephone call.

{image2}"I got a call in January from Tom," Nehring says. "He said that he knew of Mario's wishes to sell the store to me. He said Mario's intentions were to keep it as a grocery store and that the entire family believed I could do it the best.

"I felt so honored that the family felt that way about me. You have to understand, that this was a very emotional situation. The family loved this store and they loved the business and neighborhood."

Plans for the purchase and remodeling consumed most of 2003. But Groppi's Market finally and appropriately opened the week of Thanksgiving.

"The community has been overwhelming," Nehring says. "People come in here and are literally thanking us for reopening. We really wanted to hang on to the old flavor but still make the necessary updates."

The upgrades included new heating, plumbing and electrical systems. To spruce up the store, the walls were painted and the floors refinished.

Nehring says, however, that some things just couldn't be replaced.

"I looked at the place and realized I needed to keep the meat case and cooler," he says. "They were part of the store and they needed to be renovated. I could have easily bought new but I decided to keep some of the old charm. It was a bit more costly, but it was worth it.

{image3}"I've kept the original counters up front. They are from 1913. I had a cabinet maker custom finish the wooden counters, shelving and bins."

Even the family photographs still adorn the store.

"Heck, Louie still has keys to the place," Nehring adds. "Louie is in here every day, smiling as he looks at every product. We have three of the grandchildren working here.

"I want the family to feel comfortable with me running the business. Listen, they spent their entire lives making this store what it is and I don't want to change it."

The emphasis continues to be produce and small assortments of basic grocery items. But what keeps customers coming back are the homemade Italian sausage and other imports, like olives, hams and cheeses.

"We've got the Groppi recipes with their blessings," Nehring says with pride.

Expansion is also in the offing.

"We are looking at expanding to include a working restaurant and kitchen, a new cheese department and in the back, we'll have a wine shop," Nehring explains. "In the restaurant we'll be featuring sausage and sandwiches from the store."

As a way to reconnect with the community, Groppi's will offer an adjacent patio for customers to sample the wines and enjoy a sandwich while conversing like the old days.

"I had people come in and notice their neighbors who they hadn't seen for a long time and they started talking," Nehring says. "Sure, it's like a gathering place again. That's what we wanted to bring back. We wanted that personal connection between the grocer and the neighborhood. I think we've accomplished that here."

The Nehrings have put a lot of time and effort into reopening the market. But, it's obvious they've also put their heart and soul into the place.

To many, the Nehrings are now officially part of the family.

"I've actually dreamt about this ever since I got into the business," Nehring says. "I've always wanted to carry on the traditions of this store, just because of its history, my childhood and because I truly do love this community.

"I'm so glad to be back in Bay View. I spent 21 years of my life here. And I had great memories of growing up down here. My grandparents lived here. I went to school in the neighborhood. My friends lived here. It's like coming home."

G. Groppi Food Market is open Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m.-7 p.m.