When The Free Market started stacking spaghetti boxes on the shelves the narrow way, owners Kevin Hamm and Cindy Weinfurter knew it was probably time to expand their store.
Shoppers were all for it. When Hamm and Weinfurter put out a Facebook message for volunteer help with painting, cleaning and putting up shelves at their new location, customers answered the call.
“It was pretty amazing,” Hamm says. “We probably had 30 or 40 people that came in and helped us with different things.”
At the time, the husband-and-wife team planned to expand within the existing space at the Bell Heights Center in Appleton in 2008 — but then the economy crashed, and the project was put on hold. It was easier to get financing for the construction of a new building, so that’s what they did.
On Weinfurter’s birthday in June 2014, The Free Market opened its new location at 734 W. Wisconsin Ave., just a few blocks from their original location. The new facility increased retail space from about 2,100 square feet to 6,400 square feet. Staff has grown from 10 to about 26 employees.
Per customer request, the new store is now a one-stop shop, with more than 10,000 items of produce, deli foods, dairy products, personal care and household items as well as cosmetics and vitamins. “They’re able to get basically anything that a regular grocery store would have,” Hamm says.
The difference is in the word “free,” meaning the produce is free of pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms; no products include high-fructose corn syrup; the meat contains no nitrates and is free-range; fish is caught in the wild. Bakery items and products made in the deli are gluten-free.
“There are no artificial colors, no artificial flavors, no preservatives,” Weinfurter says. “Everything is certified organic if it’s available in that capacity. If not, then we look for the best and the closest that we can get.”
Organic certification is a fairly stringent process, says Free Market supplier Tracy Vinz of Olden Produce in Ripon. The farm must fill out an application, send in records of the prior three years of everything grown and all receipts for anything applied to the soil, submit to third-party inspection annually and pay a percentage of sales to the certifying organization.
But the extra effort can be worth it in increased sales and an expanded market. Organic food sales are showing double-digit growth, making up more than 4 percent of all food sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While these foods generally are more expensive than conventionally grown foods, people are willing to pay for what they’re missing.
“We have 14-year-olds that are vegan,” Hamm says. “We have 80-year-olds that have been into natural foods their whole lives. We have 45-year-olds that went to the doctor, and now they have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.”
Opening the store in 2003 was a natural evolution for Weinfurter, who in the early 1980s developed allergies to certain skin and hair-care products. “I spent two years researching, trying to find products I could use, and where I ended up was health food stores. I just found my passion. I fell in love with it.”
Early in her career, Weinfurter, who also has celiac disease, led the health and nutrition center at Shopko in Wisconsin Rapids, then eventually became the director of the natural foods department at Copps in Stevens Point. She had ideas about starting her own store, but “every time I would fill the garage with stuff to start my own store, they’d promote me,” she says.
Hamm always had an interest in the environment and organic gardening, and worked in banking before ending up at Saturn of Appleton.
“That’s how we got to know Appleton, because his job was here, and that’s how we got to know the people,” Weinfurter says.
When Copps was sold to Roundy’s in 2002, the pair began talking seriously about finally making the leap.
“When we first started, we’d take a weekend away and we’d say, ‘We’re not going to talk about the store,’” Hamm says. “And five minutes later we’d be talking about the store. So we finally came to the conclusion that this is really what we love doing.”
The produce sold at The Free Market comes from about a half-dozen farms within a 60-mile radius, including Olden Produce.
“We couldn’t ask for better partners,” Olden’s Vinz says. “They are a great company, and they help every single one of their vendors in any way they can.”
The Free Market has no plans to add stores in neighboring cities — “that’s not us,” Hamm says. But they do have a long list of things they’d like to add for their customers, including a larger produce section.
Additionally, “we’re trying to decide the infrastructure of our business, and our core team members are helping us to decide what we want that environment to look like,” Weinfurter says.
Free Market shoppers have the option to buy memberships for $30 annually, which gives customers more discounts and helps the store to make large-quantity purchases and offer sales, as well as to make improvements that customers want, such as an expanded grab-and-go case next to the juice bar.
“We always say, ‘Vote with your dollars,’” Hamm says. “As more and more consumers start choosing healthy alternatives, then more and more of that food will be grown with less chemicals on our land, in our water, in our air. It’s just better for everybody, and you feel better.”