State shuts down 'nonprofit' grocery in Sharon

Company making changes to please town officials, residents

By Chris Schultz/The Gazette

(Published Jan. 4, 2007, 11:38 a.m.)

SHARON -- The sign on the door at 201 Baldwin St. says "Sharon Nonprofit Food Mart. Push."

The lock on the door, however, says "closed."

The experiment in Sharon with a nonprofit grocery store has apparently failed.

A state official said setting up a nonprofit grocery in Wisconsin is impossible. Under state law, there is no such thing.

If an establishment sells food retail, it's a business. And if it's selling milk and other perishables, it has to be licensed, said Tom Leitzke, director of Wisconsin's Bureau of Food Safety and Inspection.

Leitzke said that the local food safety inspector, who covers Walworth County, checked the store out the week before Christmas, shortly after she heard of it. She found no running water and the milk cooler was at 43 degrees. The maximum for a milk cooler is 41 degrees, Leitzke said.

The nonprofit grocery was the brainchild of Yogesh Patel, owner of the former Ed's Sharon Food Mart, 198 Baldwin St., which burned down during the nighttime hours of Nov. 19-20. it was the only grocery store in this southern Walworth County community of 1,500.

Patel said he wanted to give residents a place to pick up at least some of their groceries in Sharon. The nearest grocery stores are in Walworth, seven miles away.

The nonprofit grocery was opened in a former laundromat. Locals say it's been vacant for some time. Leitzke said there was no running water in the building when the inspector visited.

Other problems aside, Leitzke said that if the grocery had been selling nonrefrigerated goods, like cookies, candy, potato chips, fresh fruit and vegetables, and canned goods, then the bureau would not have gotten involved.

But anytime dairy products, cold meats, or frozen foods are involved, then the bureau must inspect and the premises must be licensed, Leitzke said.

Nonprofit organizations require proper federal and state paper work, Leitzke said. Patel produced no proof that he had received either state or federal nonprofit status, he said.

In Wisconsin, food pantries tend to be nonprofit, said Leitzke. Food pantries are charitable organizations that don't sell food, but distribute it to those in need. Pantries are allowed to take true donations -- that is money and goods not in exchange for products, he said.

"We do not regulate food pantries," Leitzke added.

Patel, of Woodstock, could not be reached for comment. An attempt to reach Patel at a number that he left with authorities investigating the fire at the grocery store were unsuccessful.

A woman answering at that number did not identify herself. She said that Patel was out of town and could not be reached.

Bob Carlson, Sharon village president, said he was sorry that Patel's plans didn't pan out, but he understood that there were problems with the building.

"We're kind of in limbo now," Carlson said. But, he said, Sharon will survive without a grocery store for a while, just as it survived more than five years without a gas station.

Carlson said he thinks Patel tried to do too much in a short amount of time.

"It looks like it wasn't going to be as easy as he thought it would be," Carlson said. He said that it would be better for Patel to find out whether he will rebuild in Sharon.

He said several parties have already expressed interest in opening a grocery store in Sharon if Patel doesn't rebuild.

Carlson added that if a private retail grocery doesn't work out, the village may be able to pull together a food cooperative. Although that would take considerable planning and organization, he added.

Meanwhile, authorities are still investigating the cause of the fire that destroyed Ed's Sharon Food Mart.

Firefighters agreed that the blaze started in the basement. Investigators are focusing on the possibility that the cause of the fire was electrical.

Patel bought Ed's Sharon Mart in April 2006 from former owner Ed Sprigler of Rockford. Patel, a native of India, owns a Subway sandwich shop in Milwaukee and a liquor store in Woodstock.

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