Friendly faces in familiar places: Mike Nies
Family-focused, task-oriented Alexandria man looks back on a lifelong career in the grocery industry
When Mike Nies started his part-time job in high school, he never imagined it would turn into his life-long career path.
Nies, 61, recently retired after spending a 45-year career in the grocery industry, the last three decades of which were spent in Alexandria.
He started working at Byerlys as a high schooler in 1975. After Nies graduated from Robbinsdale High School, he continued to work for Byerlys part-time while he attained a business degree from North Hennepin Community College and a cabinet making certification from Minneapolis Technical College.
Byerlys offered him a full-time position in 1983, so Nies stayed on the team and worked as evening manager and eventually assistant produce manager. During his time in these roles, Nies helped open four additional store locations around the Twin Cities area.
Although the grocery business took Nies in a different direction from his postsecondary education, some of the strengths and skills needed to do his job carried over.
“In the produce department, you’re kind of being creative,” he said. “You’re not just putting cans on a shelf, you’re actually creating displays and merchandising, and I think that’s why I took to it. As a cabinet maker too, I can think of designs in my head and make them without a blueprint, and the same thing with running a produce department. You’re changing it all the time, making it look appealing, and that’s what I liked about it.”
In 1988, Nies and a business partner started their own produce market called Produce Place. Their idea was to sell fresh, high quality produce at lower prices. They organized it to imitate the structure of a fast food restaurant instead of a supermarket. Customers could place their orders at the front desk, and handlers in the back would package it for them. In a Burnsville community newspaper article from 1990, Nies called it “the McDonald’s of the produce business.”
Festival Foods of Alexandria, formerly in the Cub Foods building, presented Nies with a produce manager job offer in 1990, so he and his family moved up to Douglas County while his two children were still young.
When Festival Foods closed around nine years later, he was hired by Pete’s County Market to continue in the same position. And once Cub Foods bought out Pete's, Nies worked there for seven years.
Nies said he’s seen a lot of change within the grocery business since he started at Byerlys, from pricing all the products with a stamp gun to using a scanner, and now seeing people use self-checkouts more and more.
‘Felt like family’
One of Nies’ favorite things about his time spent in the grocery industry is all the people he met through his work.
Some of the children who first came when they were 8 years old are now coming in with their own 8-year-olds.
One customer Nies knew would always grumble about the freshness of the produce, teasing him loudly. Sometimes, they would yell back and forth at each other for 10 minutes. Customers who didn’t know that they were just giving each other a hard time would shoot them odd looks and question what was going on, but Nies enjoyed it.
He said he also looked forward to interacting with couples who came in regularly and intentionally greeted him, but Nies admitted it was hard when the day came that he started seeing them shopping alone.
“You see the good and the bad with that,” Nies said. “Some days are emotional. Somebody would talk to me like I’m family, and I felt like family because I’ve seen them for 20 years shopping.”
Another highlight Nies mentioned about his job was hiring young people, many of whom were starting their first job. Most would stay through their high school and college years, and some stopped back to visit Nies years later.
“So many of them are very successful doctors, dentists, optometrists, business leaders,” Nies said. “It's just fun when they come back and tell me their stories and how much they appreciated their first job and all the great learning experiences they got from that job. That makes it all worthwhile. All the training that goes into a young person makes you feel very proud.”
Both of Nies’ children worked at Pete’s County Market when they were younger, too. Nies has been married to his wife, Wendy, for 37 years. Their son, Daniel, now lives with his wife and two children in Colorado, and their daughter, Angie, lives with her husband and three children in Alexandria.
Nies said he appreciated his schedule as produce manager because he’d be clocked out by 2 p.m. and home on the lake by 2:30 p.m., teaching the children how to waterski and fish.
“I did a lot of things so I wouldn’t have regrets,” he said.
Every sporting event or practice his kids were a part of, Nies was there.
“Work very seldom got in the way,” Nies said. “I made sure of that.”
Nies’ mother was the oldest of 19 children, and his father was in the middle of 16 siblings. At any given family reunion, Nies said they had to gather at a public park because around 150 people would show up.
When he started going to family gatherings on his wife’s side and there were only a dozen people present, Nies would ask where everybody else was.
“Family has been the main thing, the most important thing,” Nies said. “And that’s why I kinda liked my job, I think, so much is because I saw so many families and they treated me like family.”
‘Just keep going’
Nies prioritizes family time, so he said he plans on spending more time with the children and grandchildren now that he’s retired, as well as “the typical fishing and golfing.”
He also plans to watch his grandchildren’s sports just as much as his children when they were younger. Nies looked out at Lake Darling, trying to decipher how thick the ice was. One of his grandsons in Colorado just turned 7, and he really enjoys playing hockey. Since they’ll be traveling to Alexandria for Christmas, Nies is hoping he will be able to play on the ice.
Other than that, Nies said he will continue to find new projects around the house and yard to occupy his time. One of his greatest fears is getting bored, but Nies said he doesn’t think that’s going to be a problem.
As he continued to contemplate what his fears would be, Nies also said he’s afraid of not accomplishing everything he wants to do. His next project will be remodeling another part of the house. Once he gets started on it, he won’t be able to stop until it’s finished.
“I’ll be like a pitbull biting a leg: I won’t let go,” Nies said. “I can’t let go. I just keep going.”
This is a part of "Friendly faces in familiar places," an occasional series telling the stories of the unique people that make up the Douglas County community through writing, photo and video. To nominate an individual to profile for this series, email Jasmine at email@example.com.