James Kowalski, who turned one St. Paul grocery store into a chain of upscale supermarkets including one in Oak Park Heights, died Thursday in an accident while on a fishing trip in Canada.
The accident happened at an isolated lake about 20 miles south of Red Lake, Ontario, and 300 miles northwest of Thunder Bay, and involved a float plane on the lake. Another occupant of the plane was not hurt.
Ontario Provincial Police Constable David Lamme told KenoraOnline that an initial investigation indicates Kowalski was outside the Cessna float plane as it was taxiing to shore on Dedee Lake when the incident occurred.
“The police investigation confirmed that the male (Kowalski) had been standing outside of the plane, on the floats, as it approached the shoreline. When the aircraft connected with the shore, the male lost his balance and fell into the propeller causing significant injury,” Lamme said.
Lamme added that the investigation continues and a cause of death has not been determined. An autopsy on Kowaski’s body was scheduled today at Lake of the Woods Hospital in Kenora, Ontario, according to Lamme.
However, several local media outlets reported today that Kowalski apparently was struck by the plane’s propeller.
OPP officers in Red Lake responded to the accident scene about 10:30 a.m. Thursday. Arriving officers learned Kowalski had been flown to the Red Lake airport, where paramedics were waiting. The OPP spokesman said the 67-year-old Kowalski was pronounced dead when he arrived at the airport.
“Today, we’re doing OK. there’s a strong foundation in the company with Mary Ann and Kris. we’re just working on getting him home, which is going well so far and are still working through the details of the service,” said Mike Oase, Kowalski’s vice president of operations.
Kowalski created the upscale, nine-store Kowalski’s Market chain in the early 1980s when he and his wife, Mary Ann, purchased the former Red Owl store on Grand Avenue. The Kowalski’s strategy of creating a European-style market offering high-quality fruits, vegetables and meats caught on with consumers and the company added stores in White Bear Lake, Woodbury, Eagan, three stores in Minneapolis along with the Oak Park Heights market.
Another Kowalski’s Market opened in Lakeville, but was later closed by the company.
While the Twin Cities grocery market has become a battleground among national retailers such as Target and Walmart and traditional companies including Supervalu and Roundy’s, which operates Rainbow stores, Kowalski’s occupied a market niche with Lund’s and Byerly’s positioned about the middle-market battle.
Kowalski’s death comes as the company was preparing to celebrate it’s 30th anniversary at its stores.