SPICER — For 62 years Greg Melges and his family owned and operated Mel’s Sport Shop — a popular hunting, fishing, gift shop and convenience store located across the street from Green Lake in downtown Spicer.
That family ownership changed in early October when the business was sold to Steve Wytaske and his family, who live in Woodbury.
The change comes at a good time for both families, with the Melges clan looking to step away from the responsibilities and time commitment required of retail ownership and Wytaske eager to step away from a long corporate career and ready to start a new life as a business owner.
The transition — according to both families — is going well and customers will be the beneficiaries.
All in the family
Mel’s Sport Shop was started as a small bait shop in 1957 by Greg Melges, who had worked across the street at the Mel’s Curb Service drive-in restaurant that his parents had been running since 1946.
Over the years Melges, his wife, Liz, and their children expanded Mel’s Sport Shop into a 20,000-square-foot retail business that carries a wide range of hunting, fishing and outdoor supplies, apparel, cabin-like decor and gifts — along with a convenience store and gas station.
As Greg Melges, 80, and Liz eased into retirement, three of their children, Shelly Christiansen, Gretchen Kragenbring and Ben Melges, picked up more of the responsibilities.
But instead of carrying ownership into the next generation, the family decided to sell the business to Wytaske with the three kids staying on as employees.
The three said they love Mel’s, but that they grew up working there, saw how much time their parents put into it and decided they want to spend more time with their families away from work.
“We didn’t want to be married to the business,” said Christiansen.
“We experienced it for many years and we’ve seen what dad has done and mother has done, and dad wanted a change and I guess we did too,” she said. “But we love the store so we stayed here.”
Their work at the store isn’t expected to change under new ownership.
“There’s only one thing that has changed, and that’s who’s signing our paychecks,” said Kragenbring.
Ben Melges said Mel’s has always treated employees like family, and that’s how they’re treating the store’s new owner.
“So, Steve’s getting a little more than just employees,” he said.
“He’s getting family,” said Christiansen.
“Yup. His family grew, if he likes it or not,” said Melges.
Trading in corporate life
Wytaske grew up hunting, fishing and camping near Ely in extreme northern Minnesota.
“My wife likes to say I was raised by wolves,” he said.
But Wytaske was tamed and spent nearly 40 years working in technology and electromagnetic engineering, including leading a research and development team for 3M for the last decade.
He retired in February and began looking for a new career that would bring him back to his outdoor roots and satisfy a desire to be a business owner.
When he saw the advertisement for Mel’s, he called the broker and drove to Spicer the next day.
“I walked in the front door and said, ‘wow,” said Wytaske.
His wife, Kay, agreed and they made the purchase and the decision for a major lifestyle change.
“Corporate world is one thing you have to do to make a living and tolerate," Wytaske said of his first career, "and then there’s the fun world. And I’ve switched my lifestyle from the corporate to the fun world, and the fun world to me is outdoors.
“I love the outdoors and anything I can do with it, I tend to zero in on that.”
Wytaske, who has twin children in the eighth grade and a college senior, will commute from the family’s home in Woodbury but has plans to eventually move to the area full time when his children are through school.
In the meantime, he’s learning the ropes on how to run Mel’s from the Melges family.
“They’re such a great help. They’re great people,” he said.
Wytaske is also making changes to the business.
A 2,000-square-foot off-sale liquor store is under construction in the northwest corner of the store that Wytaske said will increase the store’s goal of being a “one-stop shop.”
He intends to utilize underused space in the store by moving all the hunting and fishing gear to the second floor, which he said will increase space on the main floor for gifts and apparel.
The check-out stations will also be moved to enhance traffic flow and the sight line in the store, he said.
Ben Melges said the changes Wytaske is making are good.
“It was time for change and time for Mel’s to grow and that’s really what Steve is bringing to the table,” he said.
Wytaske said one thing that will not change is the Mel’s name.
“I made sure Greg knew I’m going to carry on his legacy,” said Wytaske. “I’m not changing the name. It’s so well-established, so well-known.”
Wytaske had high praise for the contractors, customers and community. “It’s like being in my hometown,” he said.
A grand re-opening of the store is expected to be held in the spring.