The future of Kellner’s Greenhouse, 3258 N. Humboldt Blvd., was uncertain after the back-to-back deaths of its owners. In October of 2005, owner Paul Mueller passed away, and exactly two years later, Mueller’s partner, Paulette Dembowiak, died suddenly from cancer.
Customers, neighbors and friends mourned the losses and wondered what would become of the century-old greenhouse. The closing of the independently owned Weber’s Greenhouse, 4215 N. Green Bay Rd., didn’t help perceptions, and some feared that smaller greenhouses in the area are a dying breed.
However, Kellner’s didn’t close its doors. Instead, Dembowiak’s daughter, Kirsten Mastro, snapped into action.
Mastro lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., but she grew up in Wisconsin and wanted to keep the greenhouse open for business. She organized forums to find out what the employees wanted to do, and what they felt able to accomplish.
"We agree we wanted to keep it going, and try to make a go of it," says Jeanne Drzewiecki, a longtime friend of Dembowiak’s and Kellner’s volunteer who now serves as the manager.
Drzewiecki holds down two other jobs, but she spends weekends and evenings at Kellner’s, working and helping out like she did for a decade when Paulette was alive.
"Paulette was never idle. She was always doing something. So when I would stop by to talk to her, I always ended up helping her in some way and learning along the way," says Drzewiecki.
Dedicated employee Kathy Casper, along with volunteers from Dembowiak’s family and a couple of college-aged helpers, keep the greenhouses thriving this season.
"We’re trying to keep everything status quo," says Drzewiecki. "We’ve had a bunch of new customers because of the closing of Weber’s, so we’re accommodating them, too."
Kellner’s features four greenhouses and outdoor greenspace. The business sells perennials and annuals – including Dembowiak’s infamous begonias – and specializes in herbs.
Drzewiecki says Dembowiak passed away quickly, leaving some business procedures up in the air.
"It’s been a learning process," she says. "For example, Paulette used to get up at 5 a.m. to pick up plants, and we realized no one knew exactly where she went."
Last summer, Dembowiak felt tired, but attributed her fatigue to Mastro’s wedding and the busy greenhouse season. However, in early fall, she received a late diagnosis of cervical cancer and passed away in October.
"We miss her, but right now we’re focusing on the business," says Drzewiecki.
This spring, The Urban Agriculture Center and members of the Riverwest community met to discuss options for Kellner’s, as well as the attached house -- also owned by Mastro. So far this season, a discussion and art show took place on the Kellner’s grounds, and community members hope for more public events in the future.
"We might have to make some adjustments, but I believe Kellner’s will stay open. Kirsten wants to keep her mom’s and Paul’s legacy alive," says Drzewiecki.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.