Pioneer Pantry opened in December in Brussels, and like so many new businesses, it began with a dream.
Having purchased a Door County getaway in Gardner in 2014, Nick Waack, 37, from Kiel; and Heather Truett, 41, from Green Bay, wanted to capitalize on Nick’s retail experience to open a store and earn a living to support full-time residency in Door County.
That dream soon took the form of the Brussels building they’d passed frequently at 9690 School Road. Next door to Massart’s Garage and across the street from the Brussels Lions Club, the abandoned building – constructed in 1903 – had boarded-up windows and vines growing across the faded paint on a brick side wall, remnants of a past as “Brussels Store.”
Locals have since told them that the building’s history has included a hardware store, barbershop and maybe even a post office. All that had ended by the time Nick and Heather drove by and fell in love with the place.
“The previous owner’s husband had purchased this building in the mid-80s, and all he did was rent out the upstairs apartment,” Nick said. “Customers have confirmed that it was the late ’70s the last time there was any kind of functional store.”
Nick tracked down the Chicago owner, a woman in her 80s. She was happy to talk with him repeatedly on the phone, but Nick could never pin her down about actually selling the property. He and Heather persisted.
“We looked at other properties in the area,” Nick said.
“I didn’t want to commit because I was in love with this place,” Heather said.
They finally connected with the owner’s daughter and consummated the sale in 2017. Then came the “blood, sweat and tears” part, as Heather put it. The building’s structure was sound, but the original floors and wood shelving needed restoration, as did all of the mechanicals. While working full time at other jobs and operating a hobby farm – angora rabbits, alpacas, chickens, ducks – they worked methodically until they were ready to open in December.
They opted for a discount-store model, buying closeouts and overstocks to keep prices down. The inventory rotates constantly as a result, but customers can find a little bit of everything there, from spray paint to parchment paper, candles to toys, dishware to hairbrushes – all name brands at what they advertise as “unbelievably” low prices for the full-time residents they want to attract.
“It’s not fair if local people who live here are paying tourist prices,” Heather said. “It’s just not right.”
They removed the roof from the garage out back and turned it into a sale yard for plants, which has drawn a lot of new customers. Heather has turned the upstairs into an arts-and-crafts space where she spins wool and practices with dyes.
They don’t have enough sales history to know whether or how COVID-19 has affected them, but May has been their best month to date.
“People from those farther-away places, maybe they didn’t come, but maybe then again, the local people didn’t want to go to Sturgeon Bay or Green Bay,” Nick said.
They are experimenting with their inventory and will base their stock on what’s needed, so customer feedback is welcome. They’re currently open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, 10 am – 5 pm.