If you shop for groceries in Shorewood, Ralph Wettstein has probably greeted you, helped you with your cart, perhaps found and returned your wallet and definitely made you smile. Though Wettstein has been working at the Pick ‘n Save, 4145 N. Oakland Ave., for only seven years, he has become a friendly fixture of the community and greets 100s of residents by name.
Born and raised on the east side of Milwaukee, he has been entertaining and taking care of people for years. He was the bartender at the well-known Tuxedo Bar on East Downer Avenue. He then shared his “gift for gab” and affinity for people for many years at Eddie Bauer at Bayshore Town Center. The Pick ‘n Save gig started when he saw a sign out in the window. It seems like the perfect fit for him as he enjoys being outside, and has a Eddie Bauer coat and hat for just about any weather Milwaukee can throw at him, thanks to his years of service and employee discount. However, you'll likely find him sporting a new 3/4-length Gore-Tex raincoat, “a good one,” he said, from LL Bean.
Over the years, Wettstein has seen many colorful situations in the Pick 'n Save parking lot.
“The weirdest thing I ever found was my first week, when I swept up what looked like a cow’s head. It was this huge jaw. Prepared me to expect unusual things, though I’ve not seen anything like it since,” he said.
Mostly, Ralph encounters people "careening into the parking lot on cell phones, not realizing how close they are to the people, children, and other cars they are.
"After almost being hit one time, the driver interrupted her call to half glance at me and say ‘sorry,’ and then went back to her call," he said.
His co-worker Ashley Neaman in the floral department overheard our interview and interjected, “Oh, Ralph, you’re the smartest person I know. I wish everyone could be like you.”
He does admit his years as a bartender and in retail prepared him to really know and enjoy people. As we chatted on the bench near the exit, he was aware of who was entering and exiting the store, and would give a delighted wave and occasionally call out a person’s name, who would smile and wave. On the other hand, he is a quick study for folks in the parking lot who, “believe it or not, sometimes lose their cars.”
He tells this story: “One time, a gentleman came out, put his things in the trunk, and then wandered off a little bit. I asked him if I could help him in some way, and he said ‘Not unless you know what my car looks like,’" Wettstein explained. "Well I sure did."
In addition to helping folks find their vehicles, and occasionally their bearings, he has found many items left in carts over the years and offers words of caution from putting personal items in carts.
“I’ve been happy to see there is a lot of honesty amongst shoppers who return items to the customer service desk, but really, it’s dangerous, " he said. "I have probably found over $4,000 left in carts inside envelopes or those flat wallets that fit right in here [gestured to the shallow bin near the handle on the card]. People should not leave their wallets or purses in there.”
Wettstein also takes on the job of collecting shopping carts that stray. Last week he and another associate pushed 27 carts back to the store in the rain from an apartment building in Shorewood.
So, next time you’re at the local Pick ‘n Save, know Wettstein is looking out for you, and say “hello.” He’ll be glad you did.
“Tell the customers I love ‘em, and the people I work with, from management right on down,” he said.
The feeling’s mutual.