Paul Kamp, whose father’s father’s father’s father opened Kamp’s Food Market in 1887, put the property on the market more than two years ago and announced that he would soon retire.
Leaving the family business has taken longer than expected, but the grocery and butcher shop synonymous with the corner of Western and Cook avenues in St. Paul’s North End will continue without him.
A new owner plans to run the store under a new name — Lay’s Food Market — while living with his young family in the adjoining home where Kamp grew up and raised his own three boys. It would take all of a 15-minute tour a month ago for Kwah Lay to say, “I want it,” said Lay, with a small laugh on Wednesday.
And Kamp’s response at the time?
“It’s yours,” said Kamp, 62, who who has run the shop with his then-newlywed bride, Lisa, since his own father fell ill when he was 23. “It was none of my business, but I really wanted somebody who would live in the back and be part of the community, like we were.”
Kamp locked the shop doors for the last time on Monday evening, striking the same pose his grandmother Stella Kamp took when she shuttered the shop’s former location in St. Paul’s Capitol Heights neighborhood in 1969. A worker snapped his picture, which Kamp posted that night on the store’s Facebook page, which in turn has been shared more than 500 times and drawn upwards of 400 comments, most of them from longtime customers.
A welder, he said, came up to him with tears in his eyes, and he wasn’t the only customer to break down a bit.
“It’s just a crappy corner grocery store. It’s nothing special,” said Kamp, who has run the business for 39 years and stocked its shelves for more than 60 years. “But you see how much it matters in the community. It really hits you.”
The unusual building sale included at least 6,000 square feet of grocery and butcher shop, complete with walk-in freezer and storage, as well as Kamp’s own split-level home attached. There’s also a 13-vehicle parking lot and attached and detached garages. The commercial structure, which dates to 1966, went on the market in 2021 for $1.7 million.
In an interview Wednesday morning, Kamp said he came close to selling a handful of times over the past two years, but never before finalized a deal.
‘Praying for the right guy’
And then, a month ago, he gave a 15-minute shop tour to Lay, a young man who was in the process of closing a family grocery in Portland, Ore. Lay’s brother-in-law had recently purchased the commercial building housing Dar’s Double Scoop ice cream on Rice Street and had referred Lay to a mutual acquaintance, who connected him with Kamp.
“We had groups that were interested but we never got the feel that it was right,” said Kamp, sitting in the shared basement of his former living room and butcher shop. “We come from a Catholic family and my sister was praying for the right guy. I met him, I felt it was right. I didn’t know if it would work out, but I felt it was right. Kwah was the right guy.”
Kamp said he’ll spend the next 30 days introducing Lay to his vendors and going down a punch-list of training items. Kamp didn’t disclose a final sale price, except to say that over the past two years “we lowered the price a couple times, but not much. It was very fair, and we tossed in some things.”
Kwah, who has a four-year-old and a two-year-old son, will live with his wife in Kamp’s former home. He said the biggest changes he foresees are fresh vegetables near the deli counter and, down the line, a sushi station. Otherwise, he’s keeping the same staff for now, including Matthew Kamp, Kamp’s son, who oversees the meat department.
As the North End has changed over the years, Kamp’s has had to evolve, with some food items catering to Black customers with southern roots. Alongside rib tips and Polish sausage, Kamp’s has become a go-to destination for head cheese — the spicy and mild versions — which Kamp buys from Glorious Malone’s Fine Sausage in Milwaukee and serves up sliced like deli ham. He sells it alongside 99-cent packs of salted crackers, and it tends to fly off the shelves, he said.
In addition to introducing Lay to his Pepsi vendors on Wednesday morning, Kamp help Lay get the next shipment of head cheese squared away. “We just placed an order for 600 lbs.,” Kamp said.
Karen population growing
In the years, the North End’s ethnic Karen community has also grown. Estimates vary widely, but the Karen Organization of Minnesota believes at least 20,000 Karen refugees call the state home, with the population heavily centered around Rice Street and St. Paul’s North End. Lay, who is Karen, said the population could in fact be twice that number given childbirths. Minnesota is home to the largest Karen community in the nation.
Kamp waves away social media rumors that after nearly 60 years of stocking shelves, crime or unrest had driven the Kamps away to their cabin home in northern Wisconsin. His wife Lisa “was ready,” Kamp said. “Oh, she was ready. She’s a trooper but she’s been ready for 15 years.”
And in truth, he was ready, too. “We’re not leaving for any reason other than I’m old and I’m tired,” said Kamp, somewhat deadpan.
With three sons and five grandchildren in the area, he doesn’t expect to stay away too long.
“It’s official! We have sold the store,” said Kamp, in his social media post on Monday. “I locked those doors for the last time. It’s been in our family for 136+ years. My heart will always be on Rice Street.”