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Madison's East Side loses a neighborhood grocer

Madison's East Side loses a neighborhood grocer

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The competition in the grocery market, a changing neighborhood and the upkeep was just too great for Tammy and Joe Wirag.

There’s a Woodman’s Market on Milwaukee Street, a Hy-Vee on East Washington Avenue and a Piggly Wiggly in nearby Cottage Grove. Willy Street Co-op is looking for a third location and Skogan Festival Foods has announced it will open a store in the 800 block of East Washington Avenue.

Last month, Milwaukee-based Roundy’s opened a 58,000-square-foot Metro Market that features a barbeque stand, smoothie station, fresh squeezed juice and a grill in the meat department where chefs, for free, will cook meat purchased in the store.

For the Wirags, their small Sentry grocery store has been a mainstay at 4602 Cottage Grove for more than 40 years, but it is about to close its doors.

The roof and parking lots need repair and there is no money to consider an expensive upgrade to the 25,000-square-foot building.

“It’s just too much. Something had to give,” said Joe Wirag, 48. “I stayed because of the neighborhood, but I stayed too long. I put every penny I had into this place.”

The Wirags began selling their inventory at 20 percent off last week and over the weekend went to 50 percent off. On Wednesday, some aisles were bare and most had only a smattering of items. By this time next week, the store will likely close for good, Wirag said.

Many of his customers walk or take the bus to his store, located at Cottage Grove Road and Acewood Boulevard. Sue Listol, who runs the front desk, would occasionally deliver groceries to customers without transportation. And local businesses, churches and school groups had tab accounts at the store that at one time employed up to 60 people.

“I feel bad for the older persons in the neighborhood,” said Listol, 50, who has worked at the store since 1992. Her mother, Pat Aeschlimann, has worked at the store since the late 1980s. “This is hard for the whole neighborhood,” Listol added.

Joe Wirag has been working at a Sentry store since he was 15. He started in Racine, before moving to Madison in 1989 to run the Cottage Grove Road store that was owned by his boss in Racine.

When that owner retired in 1996, Wirag bought the store in a building he leased from former Gov. Patrick Lucey.

Dave Schommer has owned the Piggly Wiggly in Cottage Grove since 1999. In 2010, he added 10,000 square feet to the store to upgrade his deli, bakery, frozen foods section and produce area. He’s not surprised that the Wirags are closing their store, located in one of the most competitive grocery markets in the Midwest.

“I feel sad for their loss,” Schommer said. “They’ve been there for so long, but that’s how it’s been going. The big companies are coming in and trying to take over.”

The most recent example of the pressure occurred last summer when Conrad Sentry, a staple in Sun Prairie for 67 years, closed. Five years earlier, the grocery options in that city were limited to a Pick n’ Save and Conrad. Today the market includes two Copps, Costco, Woodman’s Market, a Target store with some groceries and a Wal-Mart Super Center.

In addition, Roundy’s, which owns Copps and has been a key player in the Madison market for years, is also studying whether to add more Metro Markets to the area.

When the Wirags close their store, the only remaining stores in southern Wisconsin that continue to fly the Sentry banner will be in Janesville, Whitewater, Lake Mills and Prairie du Sac. Metcalfe’s Markets in Madison and Wauwatosa remain affiliated with Sentry but do not include Sentry in their signage.

“It’s been gradual,” Tammy Wirag, 47, said of the store’s decline. “The economy going down makes people shop different. They hop around from store to store in search of sale items. There’s a lot more stores out there. Target, Menards, everybody sells groceries.”


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