Niemuth’s Southside Market
His modest storefront on South Oneida Street in Appleton offers few hints at the unparalleled grocery selection within. The sign reads “Meat, Liquor, Seafood,” and inside are the biggest steaks one can buy, hundreds of craft beers, and frozen foods that are downright exotic.
After leaving a career at Thrivent Financial in 2003, Niemuth and his wife, Louise, opened a market to give customers exactly what they ask for. Special orders and special cuts are expected and in high demand, with customers delighted for the variety and personal service larger stores often can’t offer. Niemuth’s also offers a strong lineup of cheese and sausages Wisconsin shoppers might expect, and a great many products cooked in the smoker right behind the wide deli counter. As Niemuth says, service is his specialty, and the meat business is in his bones.
How far do your customers travel?
We have regular customers from Two Rivers and Manitowoc for the seafood. Some travel from Fond du Lac for the beer selection, and from Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids for our prime beef.
I had a couple in last Christmas and one asked me if I had anything unusual in the store. I said, “I don’t know, is octopus, alligator or alligator brats, crawfish or rabbit, pheasant or quail unusual?”
Do folks enjoy a good octopus?
Octopi demand fluctuates. I stock baby and two-pounders but have filled orders for six- and eight-pounders. Swordfish is interesting in that the catch follows the phase of the moon. Full moon is when they catch the most. Dark moons tend to have higher prices. We try to do fresh swordfish once a month depending on the price.
We keep 10 to 20 pounds of frog legs around with many being sold by the five-pound box. Bulk is cheaper than me packaging and pricing them individually. We also get fresh Florida frog legs, usually in February or March.
I often hear how surprised people are to see a selection like this in a smaller city. They never thought to see this variety north of Chicago.
Where did you learn specialty retail?
I was born into the meat business. My father started the slaughter plant in Waupaca, Niemuth’s Steak and Chop Shop, in 1958 so he could feed his mink at his mink ranch. I worked in the meat department of four major grocery stores over a 10-year period in the 80s and early 90s. It was a great learning experience, in a different economy and with consumers with different expectations than now. The deli was nowhere near what we see today as far as selection. Fresh seafood was almost non-existent, but that is where I learned one of my most valuable lessons. I do different fresh seafood every day Tuesday through Friday.
One of the stores I worked in had fresh seafood but always the same stuff. If you watched people walk by the seafood case you could tell they had one of two thoughts: “How do I cook that? or “How long has it been there?” I solved both problems by having a chef on staff and by doing different seafood every day. That gives our customers the European market feel because they can get just what they need for today and know that something new will be available tomorrow.
How do you compete with large supermarkets?
Of course Big Grocery is a competitor, but I have things that they don’t. Fresh seafood, not “previously frozen,” except on a couple items.
With thick steaks, my normal cut is one inch thick and our cowboy rib eyes are usually two-and-a-half to three inches thick. Choice and prime graded beef cut thick, the way it should be. One of my Green Bay customers buys prime steaks here because we cut them the way they want.
The main reason you can’t find thick steaks, cold water or live lobster, prime beef or Chilean sea bass and many other items in the big stores is their size. How many hundred yards is it from the meat counter, or freezer door, to the checkout? Things can go missing in that distance.
I don’t monitor Big Grocery much on the meat side. The items I sell are of a far different quality than what they offer. When I do walk through, their prices are very close to mine. On beer, wine and liquor, we price competitively on the mass market stuff like domestic big beer, rail whiskey and vodka and box wines. They do have a quantity advantage on me on some liquors, but my advantage is in craft beer. I can get new stuff in when it is first released, where a big box store usually has to wait for a corporate office to approve and install an item taking several weeks sometimes.
How has your selection changed over the years?
Beer is the biggest change, from the large industrial brewers to the small craft brewers. Some weeks I have 30 or more new beers coming in. Whiskey has been another growth area, again, with many small craft distillers coming to market and some high-end traditional whiskeys becoming impossible to get because of hoarders.
On the meat side we installed our own smokehouse two years ago and now make most of our own hams, bacon and sausage. We have five different hot sticks, with the Grimm Reaper being our hottest and most popular. We also make venison sausage for deer hunters and smoke fish for the fishermen. For venison we make it in individual batches guaranteeing each hunter their own meat back.
Are there unreasonable requests from customers?
We try our best to find unusual items that people ask for, but it’s an issue of demand. If I have to order 10 or 20 pounds to get something that someone wants a half pound or one pound of, then what do I do with the rest? It helps if you have family or friends that will help you buy the amounts I need to get something in.
Customer buying is very diverse. We like to have a 60/40 split, or better, of food to alcohol. We do have an advantage in being able to offer a beer or wine recommendation to someone buying meat or seafood.
How do you market?
For my store, word of mouth is the best advertising. That’s why we try to offer the best products we can. I always tell customers that when you have 30 people sitting around the table, I want them to say, “Best meal ever, Mom!”
We don’t have an active e-commerce presence at this time, but that is one thing that I am exploring because of the road construction that is scheduled for 2017 and 2018 in front of our store. We do post a blog on our website every week. There is also a virtual tour option so you can walk through our entire store and see what we are all about.