Photos by Tom Parker
It's Food, Glorious Food! in the Emerald City!
Devotees of exquisite foods, aficionados of rarefied chocolates, cognoscenti of the finest condiments, sauces, cheeses, olive oils, and imported Italian pastas, connoisseurs of wine and other possessors of sophisticated palates (and wannabees) can thank Stephen Balderson for talking his father, Clark Balderson, and Clark’s business partner, Larry Costlow, out of their hair-brained idea.
For the better part of three months they’d been brainstorming over a business venture for the town of Wamego. Ideas had been proposed, vetted, weighed, hammered out, hammered flat, dehydrated, rehydrated and resurrected. The best idea to date: a café specializing in grilled cheese sandwiches.
“We had a perfect name,” Costlow says with a hearty laugh. “We were going to call it ‘Cheese Louise.’”
Stephen had a better idea. Why not open a specialty food store like the Dean and DeLuca store in Kansas City so it’s not so far to drive?
Larry Costlow busy creating something special at Emerald City
Though there were small specialty food stores in Manhattan and Lawrence at that time, if you really wanted to shop for specialty foods you went to Dean and DeLuca in Kansas City, Costlow says. “It’s a huge, beautiful store. I could spend a whole day in there just reading labels.”
For Costlow and Balderson it was a light bulb moment. The two instantly changed their focus from grilled cheese to gourmet cheese, a process that took one year. On May 1, 2006, the Emerald City Market opened its doors.
And what better place than Wamego? It was midway between Topeka, the state capitol, and the combined cities of Manhattan and Junction City. And there was nothing like it anywhere west of the Missouri line.
“I think that’s one of the reasons for the success of the store,” Costlow says. “I constantly have people come in and say, ‘What are you doing here? A town of 5,000 people and you have a store that looks like it belongs in Aspen.’”
Costlow admits that saying Wamego has a population of five grand is fudging considering there’s at least that many more living between it and Manhattan, but it still retains its small-town atmosphere—which was another aspect of the business plan.
From the start, a Wizard of Oz theme was specific to the business. “There was never another name for the store,” Costlow says.
Balderson, who was involved with the development of the Wizard of Oz Museum one block to the north, had immediately seen the potential of being branded with the theme. Over 30,000 visitors flowed through the museum the summer it opened, and if Emerald City could capture a mere 30 percent of that number, the benefit would be enormous. It was literally what drove the business planning.
“It did several things,” Costlow says. “It certainly tagged onto the Wizard of Oz, but I think also the name stands alone, especially with the way the store looks, the jewel quality of it. The emerald. And a lot people don’t even think about us being Oz-related, which I find funny.”
Actually, they considered naming it Emerald City Foods, but on retrospect felt having the word food in the name was too limiting. As Costlow wondered, “What if the food doesn’t sell?”
It was a question he put to his partner. A market sells anything, he argued. It opens up more possibilities for diversification and expansion.
“And if the food doesn’t sell, we’ll put it in the basement and eat really well until it’s gone,” he said. “We’d still be Emerald City market, but it could be a gift shop.”
It was an easy sale.
That foresight paid off recently when they acquired the Lampe Berger line of high-end air purification systems. “It’s been huge,” he says, “and it took us back to why we changed our name from food to market.”
“I didn’t want to make it blatantly Wizard of Oz,” he says. “I wanted to maintain the high standards of food that we try and I wanted to tag on that with a sense of humor but not slap people in the face with it. And I think we’ve been successful with that. I think you can come in and walk around the store and really, unless you’re into the Wizard of Oz, you wouldn’t go, ‘Oh, that’s a Wizard of Oz food store.’ Even though the name, of course, comes directly from the book.”
Costlow needn’t have worried about food not selling. Food is the number one product on the Market’s shelves, especially if you consider chocolate as food. Massive refrigerated displays greet customers with a dazzling array of hand-made chocolates, fudges and truffles, some found only in a few select places in the nation. Items by Joseph Schmidt and Christopher Elbow make Emerald City Market the preeminent destination for chocoholics.
And it doesn’t end there. Inventory as varied as Kansas-made jams and jellies to international foods are offered, plus a selection of fine Portuguese pottery and other specialty items. Some items sport the Wicked label, the Market’s house brand.
Items under the Wicked label are re-branded from other manufacturers, but first they have to pass Costlow’s lips. He tastes everything prior to acceptance.
“The primary thing I use my label on, and the thing I sell the most of, is coffee,” he says. Java Johns International Coffee in McPherson, a business that came highly recommended, roasts and packages the Wicked brand of coffees. And with names such as Ozmopolitan, The Heart of the Tin Man, and Dorothy’s Dream, they play on the Wizard of Oz theme, which the town of Wamego is becoming known for.
Costlow and Balderson are also part-owners in the Wicked line of wines.
For customers who are overcome by the sheer enormity of the offerings, Costlow is happy to offer suggestions for their usage. In addition, he offers cooking demonstrations that have been so popular that he’s forced to turn people away. Partly it’s because of limited available space, but mostly it’s because he’s so busy he’d like to find time for himself.
“I played rhythm and blues for nearly 25 years, and I haven’t picked up a guitar in six months,” he says. “I’d really like to be able to have a hobby. I enjoy having a life every once in a while.”
The demonstrations and taste-testings are geared toward the sophistication of the end-user. You’ll never see a plastic cup or a paper plate in use. “If you’re going to charge top dollar for your foods, then you have to act accordingly,” Costlow says. “Everything has to be as high class as you can possibly afford.”
By all counts, Costlow has succeeded. From the product to the color scheme, the polished wood floors, the gracefully arched doorways, Emerald City Market is a class operation.
“So that’s what we’ve done from the very beginning,” Costlow says. “We told people we were a high-end store. If you say you can buy an item at Wal-Mart at half the price, you probably can’t because I made a very specific choice not to carry things that were in places like that. I literally went in with a pad and paper and copied down brand names, and when it came time to order foods I didn’t order them. Why should I? I want to be a specialty food store, and if there’s nothing special about it, why bother?”
To give your taste buds a wicked good time, drop by the Emerald City Market. It’s located at 415 Lincoln Street in downtown Wamego. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. The phone number is 785-456-7422.