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Producer Profile: Nature's Bakery
by Lynn Olson, Member Services Manager
Bridging time since 1970, an estimated 100 worker-owners have preserved the original mission and goals of Nature’s Bakery, a cooperative assembled to provide our community with affordable, clean food. For those unfamiliar with the history of Willy Street Co-op, we are a direct descendent of Nature’s Bakery. Our founders rented their first storefront in the bakery’s basement at 1019 Williamson Street over 30 years ago. Member-owners of Nature’s Bakery, some staying as little as 18 months and some more than 10 years, have participated in this consensus-run business, each accountable for everything from the baking, cleaning, purchasing and payroll.
The collective was coming together for one of their traditional Wednesday afternoon meetings when I had the opportunity to hear their thoughts on what it is that’s helped sustain them. On this day, the ovens were cold and the kitchen was dark and eerily quiet. Two stories above, in a comfortable office, a large round table was set next to a brick fireplace and the seven member-owners of the Nature’s Bakery Cooperative were gathered.
The facilitator for the meeting prompted everyone to the first order of business—an informal check-in which gave everyone a chance to settle into the meeting before agenda items were tackled. These weekly meetings, comprised of the membership, board of directors and staff (which are one and the same), and the way they’re conducted have been a consistent, integral part of their business. Everyone contributes to 100% of the company’s direction.
Kirsten, whose favorite Nature’s Bakery product is the Tofu Walnut Burger, talked about the process of bringing seven people into every decision, from labels to by-laws. “If it’s a major issue that we’re talking about then we’ll talk about it until everyone’s had their questions answered. If we had 20 members it would be harder to get everyone together and try to work these things out. It helps that we get along, and we don’t have any strife for one another. If someone brings something to the table that they really feel like needs to happen, other people really respect that. If we had any animosity for each other then we would have problems with consensus.
“We’re also committed to staying the size that we are so we can make group decisions in a concise way, [so that] we don’t have 20 people trying to come to consensus about a particular product.” Kirsten also explained that the collective is very committed to staying in one building and is not interested in expanding or developing a multi-chain business. Sticking with their original mission to provide product to their own community first and foremost has meant resisting any temptations to grow infinitely larger.
James, whose favorite Nature’s Bakery product is their Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookie, described how he sees each member’s role. “I think that we all look at this, our being here in this business, as stewards of the business, even though we’re running it, and we’re our own board of directors. We have to respect the decisions and the consensus-based model [this] business was founded upon. We’re not all going to be here forever, and, as people come and go, there is this sort of larger picture. The business itself has developed into something that is no one person but is really a large group of people where the sum of their efforts is larger than any one’s individual effort. Respecting that is important.”
Perhaps Dave, whose favorite Nature’s Bakery product is their Three-Seed Bread, said it best when he commented, “If you don’t like something, you have a responsibility to say something, otherwise you’ll brood on it. Because you are all empowered, if there’s something you don’t like, you are empowered to change it.” When consensus can’t be reached, he said, they just go back to the way they were doing it.
Amy, whose favorite Nature’s Bakery product is their Pita Bread, described the bakery’s dynamics, “We have a commonsense group of people here, too, so we have a pretty good understanding of what decisions are going to take longer to make. We’re all pretty respectful of the fact that everyone needs their time to come to a certain decision and some of the decisions are the ones that you don’t want to make <snap> like that.” Her statement could explain how they’ve been able to balance their challenges.
Greg, whose favorite Nature’s Bakery product is Essene Buds, offered, “I think it’s healthy that we don’t come to a consensus on everything all of the time. We do get into some debate into certain things and details, and in order to have something that works for all of us, there needs to be disagreement.”
“What we’re doing now is going to be carried on,” Kirsten said, “and we’re not making any drastic changes so that when other people come in here, they’ll know what to do. It’s been happening for the past 35 years and [we’re] continuing that philosophy.”
For Nature’s Bakery, the need to remain adaptable is paramount. The management roles change as new members join so as to best use each person’s skills. That kind of flexibility becomes core to a good outcome when a business is generating over $300K per year and is growing (along with the natural food industry) at a rate of 12-20% each year.
Nate, whose favorite Nature’s Bakery product is the Rye Bread is the newest member to the collective. He has already learned a great deal about how to run a business, and for anyone interested in the concept of social entrepreneurialism, Nature’s Bakery Cooperative offers a practical experience and insight into the workings of a functioning company. Greg reflected on his experience so far, “I’ve gotten exposure to so many different management areas. I don’t think I would have had this experience anywhere else. [It’s] a more human place to work, and that offers a unique experience in itself. You’re not just a piece of paper in a file.”
Kirsten added, “This is a learning environment. When we’re looking for people, we’re not looking directly for their skills. We’re looking for people who are looking for an invaluable learning experience: the opportunity to run a business in a cooperative, consensus based model, which in a capitalist system, is very different and unique. It’s hard to find a business that’s run that way and has been around more than 10 years. And since this business has been around for over 30 years, I think that’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to work here.”
Always righteous and one of only three cooperatively and collectively run bakeries in the U.S., Nature’s Bakery has never swayed from their commitment to bring affordable organics to their community. Robert, whose favorite Nature’s Bakery product is their Pita Bread, currently acts as Purchasing and Operations Manager. He spoke about this part of Nature’s Bakery’s mission when he summed up, “To keep organics affordable, we try to put as many organic ingredients into the products that we can afford. All our grains are wholegrain organic, all of our fruits are organic.” But the challenge to keep their foods accessible to their community forces them to purchase mostly non-organic nuts (although the collective remains committed to quality). The trade-off of passing on to customers the high cost of using all organic ingredients is not seen as an option for the collective, but they remain open to the opportunity when and if they can.
Nature’s Bakery goes through 2,500 pounds of flour and oats every two weeks. Therefore, reliability and consistency are a top priority. Over time, the collective has made a clear statement about their concern over genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and the use of synthetic chemicals used in growing the ingredients for their products. So they purchase all of their certified organic whole grain oats from a mill in Minnesota. If more local sources were available, the collective assures they would definitely consider using it, but historically, this option hasn’t been available. Many of the ingredients used in producing their products are bought locally, including their liquid sweeteners barley malt, honey and maple syrup. Nature’s Bakery has also continued to abstain from using refined white sugar in any of their products.
The favored reason among collective members for their longevity is, of course, their customers. Customers regularly report having fallen in love with the taste of Nature’s Bakery’s granolas and breads while living in Madison or even as children who grew up in the neighborhood. Now, many of those loyal fans are the basis of their thriving mail-order business, so Nature’s Bakery products are regularly shipped to individuals across the country.
Members, who spend a large part of their schedules actually baking, say they are constantly encouraged by the frequent visits from former bakers or customers who are passing through town and just want to stop in to see how the place is doing or are looking to purchase 25 pound bags of granola to take to friends around the globe. “We try to maintain our products for our customers who’ve been buying our products forever,” Robert said, “Customer loyalty has helped. The business has been up and down, but I think if people weren’t buying the products, we wouldn’t be around at all.”
To learn more about Nature’s Bakery, log onto their new website, set to launch this month at www.naturesbakery.coop. To visit the bakery and see the shop, stop in at 1019 Williamson Street or call ahead at 257-3649. You can buy many of their delicious products here at Willy Street Co-op.