Grocers with a soft spot for the poor leaving the business

Ever since the city of Saint Paul started wooing a grocery store for downtown that screams “upscale,” plenty of people have wondered what would happen to the grocery that doesn’t.

The Rivertown Market on Wabasha Street in downtown Saint Paul is changing hands. Its owners are retiring and deserve every bit as much praise and attention from the city as the big glitzy grocery that’s moving in up the street.

The grocery moved into a space downtown when it seemed everyone else was giving up. Even some city officials doubted Gene and Harriet Will’s desire to sink their life savings into the grocery, according to a sweet profile at

When he was cleaning up before leaving, Mr. Will reportedly found about $500 worth of IOUs he took in exchange for groceries.

A consultant told them that “hominess” and a personal touch would be key to their success. She needn’t have bothered: Gene greeted customers — often walking out from behind his deli counter — with a handshake and hand on the shoulder.

As for the homeless that would sometimes walk through his door — the store is located a few blocks away from multiple shelters — Gene says, “They’ll throw their change, 82 cents, up on the counter, and ask what they could get. If I knew their intent, and it wasn’t to steal, I’m gonna feed ’em.

“I came from a big family. Seven siblings. I know what it’s like to be hungry.”

Harriet remembers a man who bought a chicken wing, and ate the entire thing in one bite. A few minutes later, her husband approached the man with a Styrofoam tray of food.

“Here. I know you’re hungry. But don’t think you’re gonna hang out here, and I’m not gonna do this all the time,” Gene told the man.

Thinking of his safe-full of I.O.U.’s, Gene says, “I can tell you, 95 percent of ’em were so honest. And if they said they’d pay me back, they’d come back with that $5. I’d never even think they’d come back.”

The new owners say they’re going to keep the place open. But it’ll probably require a soft spot for the poor and the hungry.