WTF Weds: Koppa’s Fulbeli Deli, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Posted on
Jan 15, 2013


It’s funny how quickly the bizarre becomes normal.

How things that are strange and weird become familiar and every day. So that after a while, we forget that they’re even all that strange, until someone else points it out to us.

When we first moved back to Seattle from Florida, nearly 20 years ago (good heavens, the years. They are slippery little suckers, are they not?) my mother and I were faced with an odd problem. Our home felt far too empty. My brother had gone off to college, so it was just the two of us, living in far more square footage than we’d ever known.

We dealt with the problem in the usual way: we bought a mannequin.

When we first met Melba, as my mother later named her, she was a mess. Horribly clad in an old shirt and shorts, with a miserable grey wig that was doing her no favors. She was missing a hand, or possibly two (I forget now), and so the sign for the garage sale she was advertising was taped crudely to her chest.

“How much for the mannequin?” my mom asked.

The gentleman running the sale stared blankly at us. “You … you want her?” he asked us, as though we were the crazy ones. I mean, he was the guy selling a perfectly good (except for her missing hands) mannequin.

“I’ll give you ten bucks for her,” my mother offered. He negotiated us up a few dollars more. And that night, we loaded Melba into the car, and took her home.

We gave her a makeover: a long black velvet dress, a shorter, much-improved wig. We touched up her face, and my mother stuffed leather gloves with newsprint, which served as make-shift prosthetics for her missing hands (because actual mannequin hands are hard to find. Who knew?)

In the end, she looked like a young Raquel Welch.

Beloved as she was, at first, Melba startled me. I’d round a corner and, having forgotten she was there, would clutch my heart and gasp every time I saw her.

“Right,” I’d think, trying to regain my composure. “We have a mannequin now.”

Over time, I grew used to her. My mother and I would decorate Melba for the holidays; we’d say goodbye to her as we left the house, hello when we returned.

And as years passed, I forgot that she was something rare and strange.

The first time I brought Rand home, he froze in the doorway when he saw her.

“Um …” he said, staring blankly at her tall, silent figure.

“Huh? Oh, that’s just Melba,” I said, and walked right by. And now, whenever we visit my mother, Rand barely bats an eyelash at the mannequin in the corner.

Weird things, in the end, become normal.

That’s kind of how things went at Koppa’s Fulbeli Deli in Milwaukee. Our friend and Rand’s colleague, Jamie, recommended the spot. He’d spent plenty of time in Wisconsin (his wife went to school there), and he became our unofficial guide during our trip.

From the outside, the place looks small and unassuming.

Note: the sign in the window reads “Marsday Special: Tacos 2/$3.00”

But the inside … well, it looks like my mother was hired as interior decorator. It’s just pure, delightful madness.

The best part about this picture is the WTF look on Rand’s face.

Imported from Wisconsin!

As we walked through, Jamie noted that he’d forgotten how strange it was. Over the years, he’d just gotten used to it. Everyone there had. Rand and I were the only ones fazed by it. I took photo after photo, and the staff stared at me like I was a madwoman. 

“What intrigues me so? I don’t know … how about the Dairy case with transposed letters surrounded by illustrations from the early 1970s?”

It was just like me with Melba – they no longer saw the strangeness of it. We’d stopped in the doorway and stared blankly, but to them, it was commonplace.

“That’s just Melba.”

Or, in this case,

“That’s just Jabba.”

“That just the poorly taxidermied coyote in the milk aisle.”

“That’s just a free Atari station.”

“And, what, you’re taking a photo of this? Why on earth would you do that? Haven’t you seen an end cap turned into a living room vignette before?”

To be honest, no. No, I have not.

“You can’t expect me to believe that they don’t have bananas in Seattle …”

We have them. Just not usually on huge fake trees.

At least the copy on the packaging was normal, right?

This brought me so much delight, I ended up purchasing two packs.

Parenthetically, there is a band in Seattle called “Creamed Korn” and they only play acoustic versions of Korn songs. True story.

At least, I thought it was normal at the time. But by then, we’d been inside Koppa’s for a while. Everything was becoming familiar. Everything was a little less strange.

Oh, look. A Coors can hanging from the ceiling. Whatever. No big deal.

Heck, it was even starting to feel like home.

Leave a Comment

  • Frankly, I’m a little disappointed that there are no Wes Anderson characters sitting in that living room display. It seems like a place Steve Zizou would take meetings.

  • This is the second-crazy thing I’ve heard of today!
    The first was my boss coming back to the office from the common pantry area (accessible to people from multiple offices in the building) to tell us that he opened the door too hard and one of the cupboards opened and a WOMAN TUMBLED OUT OF IT! Apparently, she was taking a nap, with a pillow and everything! O.O

  • Is it just the male Chocolate Moth whose body parts are edible?
    Never really been a big fan of moths, but these I could be persuaded to try 🙂

  • Jen

    Thank you for that lovely anecdote about Melba and your childhood. I feel it has shed new light on some of the (delightful) craziness of this blog!

  • The free Atari station is my favorite – so awesome.

  • I love that place already.

    I was thinking about how this same idea is true for our family stories. There are stories that are told within our families that seem a little odd to others, but seem totally normal to us because we’ve heard them over and over.

  • Heretofore! I proclaim that, “And then I bought a mannequin at a garage sale” is the new bad story ender. I’m crying laughing in my cubicle – so now I’m the crazy girl. Maybe that will seem less strange to my co-workers someday, too!

  • What am I missing? What’s weird about Candy Korn? Just because it’s January?

    • Everywhereist

      It’s generally spelled “corn”, so I think this is referencing the band. Which is delightful in its own way.

  • Ok, this post brought several things to mind….

    First and foremost….Ah, Melba…..that explains A LOT!

    Second, followed the link to Rachel…..Why does a 72 year old woman look better than me at any point in my life?!

    Third….Drat! I have forgotten what it was…..

    but I do love that Deli. It must be owned by fantastic people!

  • Christie

    Every city needs a Koppa Fulbeli Deli (but then it wouldn’t be special anymore). Love the Free Atari and living room vignette.

  • Kristi

    Milwaukee is one of those places that I never thought I’d visit, but when I had to go for a work trip, I found it absolutely delightful. I want to go back and do some more exploring.

  • Cindy

    I grew up in Milwaukee… and lived about a block away from Koppa’s in the Late 80’s / Early 90’s. Back then is was just Koppa’s Farwell Foods… I did most of my grocery shopping there and the deli was awesome! It was always quirky and wonderful. Thanks for reminding me of one of my favorite past haunts!


  • Dawn Shepard

    These pictures remind me of home. Being from the mid-west I’ve seen these kind of sparse yet taxidermy decorated shops my whole life. The kind of store where you can purchase milk and worms for fishing. They usually have a stand-up video game from the 80’s but I’ve never seen an Atari! Thanks for sharing.

  • Meghan

    OK, this post was hysterical in every way.

  • Rachel S.

    Point 1: I posted this article on my facebook wall (timeline, whatever), and a friend of mine has BEEN THERE. He is now basically a rock star, in my opinion.

    Point 2: I think I speak for the rest of the clan when I say that we would like to see pictures of Melba. I kind of couldn’t believe that there were comments on this post that hadn’t asked this already. Maybe posed with her favorite cupcake?

  • Rose

    Love the Melba story. Reminds me…when my husband was a novice real estate agent back in the 70’s, he showed some clients a house owned by mannequin creators. As he passed the three figures on the porch swing he greeted them warmly and proceeded into the house which featured realistic mannequins everywhere. Not wanting to be rude, he kept greeting the mannequins as he moved from room to room. It got pretty weird when he opened a closet door and mannequin body parts spilled out. Needless to say, he didn’t sell the house.

  • Haha! In a way this blog is a lot like the delightfully strange Koppa’s Fulbeli Deli… and so I’m not at all surprised to learn that you grew up with a mannequin named Melba. It just puts things into perspective! And reminded me of some of the crazy in my own life I’ve grown accustomed to. Great post!

  • Jim

    I grew up with a Melba, too. Not a mannequin, though. My mother.

    Your blog is delightful. I laugh everyday. Thank you.

  • My daughter and I have a Melba chez nous, only she’s nameless and headless. She wears angel wings and a neon pink baseball cap with a tiara. I
    Nothing as great at the Fulbeli Deli in Paris, but we do have a fantastic taxidermist who stuffs juggling rabbits with peacock tails!

  • Ally

    My sister made a life sized sculpture of a woman out of cardboard once. She called her Lizzie and we kept her in the hallway – with much the same reaction to those seeing Melba! I wonder if my parents still have her…

  • veronica

    I really think I need to see a picture of Melba 🙂

  • What a cool store! They should have a weekly contest of letting customers get blindfolded and using a full Coors beer as a pinata!

  • Kristina Cline

    Please, please tell me you have been inside archie mcphees. After a couple visits there, any store like this is just a little off. The moth balls are hilarious though, so tasty.

  • Uh…I grew up in that store. And I appreciate very much all of your appreciation for what has been created there. The grand applause should go to my brother, Ken, not only for keeping the place alive all these years, but for evolving it into what it is today. I can’t tell you what a treat it is to see this blog today. Thanks to you, thanks to Ken, thanks to my dad for letting us do what we did to his grocery store, and thank you to all the people who have supported it over the years. God bless you all!

    • Everywhereist

      It is SUCH a wonderful place to visit. Thank YOU.

      • I have been thinking about this and it’s been driving me nuts enough to come back and add to my comment something critically important…thank you very much to all the EMPLOYEES who have always been a huge part of the personality within those walls.

        • Everywhereist

          Hooray! And props to you for assembling such an awesome staff!

  • Ok is it me? Or does the dairy say diary?

  • michaelaugustschmidt

    How is it that I’m just now learning this place exists?! The whimsy and weirdness remind me of American Science and Surplus on 68th and Oklahoma — which I’m so old I remember going to when it was on Layton!

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