February 2006

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Producer Profile: Willy Street Co-op Off Site Kitchen

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Producer Profile

Willy Street Co-op Off Site Kitchen
Finding Our Groove

by Lynn Olson, Cooperative Services Manager

Sprouting from the success of the Willy Street Grocery Co-op Deli, the new Willy Street Co-op Off-Site Kitchen (OSK) was joyfully unveiled on April 8th, 2005. With less than a year in at their new location, staff and the facility have begun to mesh nicely with their mission and purpose.

When we first moved into our current location at 1221 Williamson Street, the Deli kitchen there felt palatial compared to the lone stove and table that served as a kitchen in our previous location at 1201 Williamson. Within a few years, though, the grumblings from staff working in the department and the number of customer comments requesting more food determined that our current Deli kitchen space could not support more production or keep up with sales. After securing the closest feasible location and designing and installing the facility from the studs up, the OSK at 1882 E. Main Street was born. With it came the opportunity for Willy Street Co-op to expand the offerings to our members and to provide a future for even more community retail entities searching for sources of fresh, organic alternatives.

Leading the pack

Deli Manager Dan Moore, along with Coordinators Bob Smith and Quintin Sprengelmeyer, have worked closely with Assistant Store Manager Wynston Estis to fine-tune operations at the site, and the recent hiring of Josh Perkins in the newly-created position of Kitchen Manager was finalized in late December. Josh has begun overseeing the daily operations in the Kitchen and expects to use his 20+ years experience working in restaurants to bring the OSK to the next level. After managing the OSK during the interim start-up period, Dan Moore will resume his valued role as the Deli, Cheese and Juice Bar Manager in the retail location.

The folks behind the food

The twenty-five mostly full-time staff members of the OSK work in two shifts seven days a week to create every pre-made salad, grab & go item, hot entrée and bakery item featured in the store. The Co-op’s “Willy Pack” bulk packaging is also housed at the OSK and only a few select items are still packaged in the retail location.

For those Deli employees who had already been working in the store, making the change to the OSK was met with mixed emotions. Most of the staff loved the new kitchen and some made the decision to return to the store environment. Describing the change in dynamic, Marcus Dushack reflects, “The environment is not the same. There’s not really too many disadvantages. You don’t see all the people that are at the Co-op. The advantages are that sometimes we don’t have to deal with the [retail] environment. It’s usually the same pace over here, steady and to the bone, and, over there, sometimes [it] gets even higher than that.” On the same topic Quintin adds, “It’s kind of a close-knit thing over here. I like knowing who I’m working with every single day and what their skills are and what I can depend on them to do and what I can’t.”

This group of hard-working employees, which was assembled from a mix of original staff members and some new, has persevered through the growing pains of establishing a system that didn’t previously exist. Many tasks that were seamlessly performed each day in the old kitchen had to be re-evaluated in the new kitchen. Just the walk from the worktables to the walk-in coolers added a new dimension to the timeframe needed for preparing each recipe. At the storefront location, making the ten-step trip to the walk-in cooler in the Deli and finding what one needed was easy since the space is about the size of a small walk-in closet. Now, with nearly 1,000 square feet of cooler and freezer space at the OSK, new procedures for efficiency needed to be mapped out.

Additionally, upon moving to the OSK, intricate record-keeping and HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point—a stringent set of food safety guidelines) procedures dominated the consciousness of everyone working there but have now become second-nature. Likewise the rigorous nightly cleaning routine, which takes nearly two hours and includes washing every single surface (tables, floors, vents, and walls) in the facility.

Other advantages

One strategic advantage for the entire Co-op created by opening the OSK has been the formation and use of an additional receiving department and more freezer, cooler and dry storage space. Marcus Dushack, OSK Receiver, says of the added convenience of the new site for the retail location, “The large cooler helps us (OSK) out with inventory and it helps the retail out, for example, by holding the holiday turkeys. When there’s a pallet that needs to come off a truck that can’t get into the parking lot over there, they send them over here. We get utilized.”

Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch

By late summer, having had enough time to hone their systems, the OSK was finally able to begin working with the Wisconsin Homegrown School Lunch program to fill orders of minimally-processed, local carrots and sweet potatoes for the Madison Metropolitan School District. Wynston Estis, lead contact on the project, says, “We’re hoping to grow this program into more locally grown produce for the school system and supporting sustainability and lower fuel costs associated with bringing [produce] from other parts of the country.” She enthuses, “We’re happy to be a support in improving the quality of our community’s food sources.”

Let them eat cake

Life Molitor, who was recently promoted to Bakery Coordinator at the OSK, manages a small staff of bakers to produce the current line of Willy Street Co-op desserts and baked goods. Raspberry Crumble Bars, vegan and dairy-based cheesecakes, granola bars and the ever-popular Willy Street Co-op cookies are all baked from scratch and delivered to the retail site on a regular schedule. Sifting through 150-200 pounds of pastry flour per week, Life has her hands full, but she plans to bring more variety to our members after hiring and training more staff. Special orders are still available from the Bakery, and Life was very busy in November and December baking holiday pies for many of our members.

Endless possibilities

Currently producing over two hundred Deli products and making 14 deliveries per week, the OSK has already proven it has what it takes, but the potential is vast in terms of available space in the 4,000 square foot kitchen. New OSK Manager Josh understands the task at hand, “The Co-op is in a position to get into serving a larger portion of the city than just the walk-in traffic from Willy Street, and I think there’s a new sensibility about the variety of customers who are going to come in and want to enjoy the food here.”

An emotional commitment

After studying political economies and sustainable agriculture at Goddard College in Vermont, Josh received his culinary degree at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Cambridge, MA. Since living in Madison, Josh has learned crucial lessons in managing food and staff from his work while cooking at Amy’s Café and as Executive Chef at The Opera House. But a bonus to his qualifications was his exposure to local, sustainable buying systems, “When I came back to Wisconsin I ended up working for Steve Pincus and Tipi Produce. At that time it was the burgeoning origins of Home Grown WI, which went through a heyday in the city and has now expanded into the Chicago market.” Josh’s experience and enthusiasm for local produce will be an important focus for his work with the OSK, but he also puts great value on another area of food philosophy, which we’ll all be able to appreciate. “What’s most important…is the depth of flavor and a certain emotional commitment to the food. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it has to be sincere. I think people can taste the difference.”