Freeburg residents had no grocery store for nearly three months, and they didn't like it.
But people were all smiles Tuesday morning, when the new Freeburg Country Mart opened for business off State Street. It replaces Tom's Market, which closed in March.
"It's great," said Jim Blaies, 81, a retired carpenter who shopped at Tom's almost every day. "I've been going through a tank of gas a week, going to Dierbergs and Schnucks and Shop 'n Save (in other towns)."
Blaies was one of about 100 people who stood outside for a ribbon-cutting before checking out the 35,000-square-foot refurbished grocery store in Freeburg Center, next to Ace Hardware.
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"The whole town is excited," said Joyce Mense, 67, a seamstress who retired from Tom's 10 years ago after working 23 years for the small chain. "Everywhere you'd go, people were like, 'When is it opening? When is it opening?' "
"You just can't hardly stand not having a grocery store in town," Mense added.
Freeburg Country Mart is owned by Joe Koppeis, who also owns Freeburg Center; and Kathy Nordike.
Nordike is general manager of Koppeis' other businesses, including Sparta Holiday Inn; four Ace Hardware stores and four Domino's Pizza restaurants in Southern Illinois; shopping centers in Sparta, Chester and Columbia; and the Rock City warehouse in Valmeyer.
"We've spent over a million dollars renovating (the Freeburg Country Mart space) and getting it open, and we've got a lot more to do," said Koppeis, 64, of Columbia.
The owners expect to employ about 60 people, including many from the old store.
Deli manager Mandy Gaubatz worked 12 years at Tom's in Freeburg, then transferred to the Mascoutah store shortly before Freeburg closed. Now she's back where she started.
"I have high hopes that it's going to be great," said Gaubatz, 37, of New Athens. "We've got a good team, I think."
Tom's operated 12 different stores over the decades. Today, Mascoutah is the only location left. Owner Don Norrenberns closed both Freeburg and Nashville in March, blaming the high cost of union pension funds.
“This was something we had hoped to avoid,” he stated in February. "Letting go of these stores has been very emotional. We love the people we serve and the talented team that works with us.”
News of the Freeburg store closing concerned city officials enough that they held a public meeting at the grade school. Local churches offered to deliver groceries to older residents.
"It was devastating," said Mayor Seth Speiser, noting the city of more than 4,000 residents had a Dollar General and a convenience store, but no place to get fresh meat, eggs or produce.
On Tuesday, Speiser praised Koppeis for agreeing to fill the community void and open a grocery store, and for following through with it in a matter of weeks.
"We have our own electrical co-op and (the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency) worked with him to get a better rate on electricity for the next year," Speiser said. "And we helped him get high-efficiency lights through a grant. We did whatever we could."
Speiser noted that Tuesday's ribbon-cutting was better attended than most in Freeburg, reflecting its importance.
"This is a big deal," he said.
The ceremony included a bit of comic relief. A test of the city's emergency-alert siren started blaring just as Koppeis prepared to speak. He joked that it was letting everyone know there was a new grocery store in town.
Koppeis asked residents for patience, noting renovations at Freeburg Country Mart aren't complete. Workers still are filling in an opening left when the door was moved. Merchandise is being shuffled around as well.
"We don't want you to look in all the corners and see all the things we haven't done yet," Koppeis said. "But we've come a long way."
Koppeis' first job was scrubbing floors in the meat department of Dugal's Big Star in Farmington, Missouri. He continued to be involved in the grocery business, both retail and wholesale, with his wife, Patty.
They opened Columbia Market Place in 1988 and sold it to Schnucks in 2014.
"Life's full of twists and turns," Koppeis said at the ribbon-cutting. "I never thought I'd get back in the grocery business."
Koppeis thanked Citizens Bank, city officials and others who supported him during the planning process for Freeburg Country Mart.
Joe and Patty Koppeis have four grandchildren. Granddaughter Reagan Koppeis, 6, of Columbia, used giant scissors to cut the ribbon.
The new store has grocery, produce, dairy, meat, deli, bakery, frozen and liquor departments, as well as a pharmacy. Blue, green and tan walls are accented with corrugated-metal panels.
Customer Nick Rheinecker, 20, was impressed. The heating and air conditioning man stopped in Tuesday to buy a couple 12-packs of soda.
"This is 10 times better (than the previous store)," he said. "It has more items, and the prices are lower. It's just nice having a place that has some things."