A Co-op Compendium
by Kathy Humiston, Newsletter Writer
Co-ops seem to be everywhere these days, from tiny towns to large cities across the country. Many have been around since the early ‘70s, and have grown over the decades from small, all-volunteer operations to multi-million dollar businesses that employ scores of people. October marks the celebration of National Co-op Month, and we also celebrate the birthday of our own Willy Street Co-op this month! It seems like a good time to check in on the other natural foods co-ops in Wisconsin.
Cooperatives are businesses that are owned and controlled by their members. Over 120 million Americans are served by cooperatives in some aspect of their lives. Co-ops can be found in every type of industry, ranging from farm services to housing; credit unions to groceries; child-care to health care. Worldwide, co-op members number more than 700 million.
According to the UW Center for Cooperatives, there are around 850 co-ops in Wisconsin today, serving 424,000 members and contributing over four billion dollars to the economy. It is thought that cooperative roots here probably date back to 1841 when Annie Pickett started making cheese near Lake Mills using milk produced by her neighbors. When the final product was sold in Milwaukee, the profits were divided among the farmers and an unofficial co-op was born. Several area co-ops have been around for 100 years or more, fulfilling their members’ needs.
Of the 850 co-ops in Wisconsin, 22 are food co-ops; there are half a dozen more within thirty minutes or so of the state line. In fact, in our region of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan there are more co-ops than almost any other area of the country!
Natural food cooperatives like the Willy Street Co-op tend to play an important role in their members’ lives. Many of us choose to shop here because we believe in supporting a local, sustainable food system; or we may have special health concerns; or because of trust-we depend on special ingredients, and we trust the origins and quality of the food we buy at our co-op.
In late 2003 The Shuttle, a publication of Weaver’s Way Cooperative in Philadelphia, reported on a survey conducted by the American Federation of Consumers and a group of cooperatives. The survey found that “...two-thirds of Americans felt that businesses owned and governed by the users of those goods or services were more trust-worthy”. A majority of survey respondents “...(81 percent) also felt that co-ops could be counted on to meet customer needs more than a investor-owned company; 79 percent thought that co-ops were committed to providing the highest-quality service to their customers”.
Co-ops obviously have a good track record when it comes to keeping members satisfied. We all have other things in common as well. Co-ops live by the seven cooperative principles; we support our communities through service, education and monetary donations; we are accountable to our members because we ARE our members. Even though co-ops share many similarities, we also have differences and if you are traveling or relocating, some of that information may be of interest to you. The staff members at most natural food co-ops would likely be happy to answer your questions about their stores in advance by phone or email.
I recently put together a list of questions for 27 Wisconsin and regional food co-ops and received answers from about half of them. I enjoyed the daily trivia quiz and maybe some of their answers will save you a little legwork.
All the co-ops I surveyed place a strong emphasis on excellent customer service. We all focus on supporting local products when they are available, and have made a commitment to organics and environmental sustainability. We work to share the latest food and health information with our customers and educate the wider community, too. Many of us began life in the 1970s as consumer buying clubs and have grown into retail storefronts both large and small.
The co-op currently operating nearest to us is the Regent Market Co-op on the near west side of Madison. This co-op was formed in 1998 when a group of folks banded together to find a way to keep a grocery store operating in their neighborhood. The store offers a mix of organic and conventional products suited to the neighborhood’s needs and focuses on locally produced foods. Regent Market Co-op is proud to offer a full-service meat department with a butcher on staff and also emphasizes fresh cheese and other local foods. Manager Jim Huberty and his staff strive to meet the expectations of members in the neighborhood. “In an arena of ‘big box’ stores, Regent Market has survived as a small grocery store and it is important that we continue as ‘a choice’ for our neighborhood’s grocery needs,” Huberty said. The cost to join Regent Market Co-op varies depending on the type of membership chosen. Regent does offer reciprocity to members of Willy Street Co-op, as well as some additional out-of-town co-ops.
We’ll soon have a new co-op in the Madison metro area when the Yahara River Co-op opens in downtown Stoughton. In late August, the Yahara River Co-op met it’s fundraising goals and is on track to open later this fall. Yahara has a $75 membership fee; members will enjoy a five percent discount, member-only specials, Member Appreciation Day each month and other benefits.
Trillium Natural Foods Community Co-op in Mt. Horeb shares some members with Willy Street Co-op. The store also has a strong focus on locally produced foods and satisfies the needs of many shoppers with dietary restrictions in their small town. Manager Becky Rehl says some members have chosen to relocate to Mt. Horeb in part because of Trillium’s existence, telling her, “We knew we could live in this town because it’s got such a great co-op.” Trillium also has a few different levels of membership and offers reciprocity to members of other Wisconsin co-ops.
The smallest co-op in Wisconsin has to be the Viola Food Co-op in Vernon County. They have been in business for 30 years and right now have about 15 members with monthly sales of around $1000. They may also be the most fun co-op in the state-they sport a pool table right up front to encourage passers-by to stop in!
Chequamegon Food Co-op in Ashland is the northernmost food co-op in Wisconsin. They have been in business for 31 years, have 1,300 members and about $1.3 million in annual sales. Their manager, Mary, told me that their block is the coolest in Ashland and a regular gathering place for community members. In addition to the co-op, the block includes a coffeehouse and a “funky” little bakery. Chequamegon does not have an in-house deli, but does feature a grab-n-go selection of pre-made deli foods. They do not apply a surcharge to members of other co-ops visiting their store; membership is $25 per year.
At the southern extreme of the state is Basics Cooperative in Janesville. Basics has been in business since 1977, originally as a privately owned store. It became a cooperative in January 2005 and has quickly grown to 1,200 members. It costs $150 to join this co-op. Basics Co-op offers a five percent discount to members of other food co-ops. Their product policy is simple: “If it’s not natural or organic, it’s not here!”
Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee has about the same number of members as Willy Street Co-op, but they are ahead of us in the expansion game with three stores, plus a commissary and administrative offices. They employ about 300 people and had sales of $24 million last year. Each of their stores features a deli and bakery. Outpost members pay $200 to join and receive patronage dividends of about one percent. They offer courtesy discounts on selected items to members of other co-ops. Outpost has been in business since 1970, making them the oldest co-op in Wisconsin to respond to my survey. They try to source as much product as they can from within Wisconsin or the Midwest, emphasizing fresh food as close to natural as possible, with minimal environmental impact.
The Stevens Point Area Co-op has been around about as long as the Willy Street Co-op and Outpost, beginning as a buying club in 1972 and moving to a storefront in 1974. Their lovely old building will remind Willy Street members of some of our earlier incarnations, with big windows and shining wood floors. The co-op houses the Earthcrust Bakery, which creates some pretty irresistible goodies using solar-generated electricity. Owners of the Stevens Point store pay an annual membership fee of $40 and receive a 15% discount on every purchase. Stevens Point Area Co-op offers a five percent reciprocity discount when you show your co-op member card.
Moving over to the western portion of the state we find several more natural foods co-ops. In addition to Viola, there are co-ops in Richland Center, Viroqua, Gays Mills and LaCrosse. The co-op communities of both Viroqua and LaCrosse have celebrated new or expanded buildings in the past couple of years. People’s Co-op in LaCrosse is home to Hackberry’s Bistro, a lovely restaurant overlooking a downtown park. Hackberry’s features a seasonal menu with many organic choices.
Farther north is the Menomonie Market Food Co-op in Menomonie. Started as a buying club in 1973, they’ve moved through several storefronts over the years. They have been in their current location since 2001 and specialize in local and organic produce, cheese, deli and wellness products. They are excited to offer their members a patronage dividend for the first time this year.
West of Menomonie is the picturesque city of River Falls, home to the Whole Earth Grocery co-op. They could probably vie for the honor of “best-smelling” co-op-they feature coffee that is freshly roasted in the store. They also emphasize local produce and dairy products, and specialty cheese. A lifetime membership at Whole Earth costs $60; members of other co-ops receive a discount at the register.
Island City Food Co-op in Cumberland is the only co-op I know of that is located on an island-in fact, the city of Cumberland is mostly situated on an island in northwestern Wisconsin. In addition to their unique location, selection of organic and local foods, and a coffee shop, they are another good-smelling store, with an in-house bakery turning out fresh-baked goods daily. Membership is $20 per year and members receive a five percent discount on most items. If you are a member of a different co-op, Island City will offer you reciprocity.
There is no food co-op in Superior, but take the soaring bridge over to the Minnesota side and you’ll find the Whole Foods Co-op just a few blocks from downtown Duluth. The co-op moved into an expanded location in 2005 and has been growing ever since. Shannon Szymkowiak, Whole Foods Co-op’s Marketing and Member Services Manager, says that every grocer in Duluth has increased their selection of natural foods since their expansion. Be aware that Whole Foods Co-op is in no way connected to the Whole Foods Corporation. Whole Foods Co-op has been around since 1970; they have 4,172 members, $8.5 million in annual sales and were recently certified as an Organic Retailer. I can personally attest to the incredible view of Lake Superior from the seating area near the Whole Foods Co-op deli-the food is great too!
There are 40 food co-ops in Minnesota and the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area is home to 14 of them, so you should have no trouble finding natural and organic products when you travel to the Twin Cities. The Linden Hills Co-op is located near all the beautiful Minneapolis lakes. A few years ago they opened the Linden Hills Natural Home store right across the street from their grocery location. The membership fee at Linden Hills is $80 and they offer reciprocity only to Twin Cities area co-op members. They emphasize local, organic, Fair Trade and minimally packaged products. Not too far away is the Wedge Co-op, in business since 1974. According to their website, membership at The Wedge is $80 and members are eligible to receive a patronage dividend. The Wedge was the first grocery in Minnesota to be certified as an organic store.
The Seward Co-op has been in business since 1972. They are close to their fundraising goal for the new store they are going to build, just down the street from their current location. The new store will be twice the size of their existing location. Membership at Seward is $75 and they also extend reciprocity to other co-ops. Seward’s emphasis is on local, Fair Trade, organic and bulk foods.
Mississippi Market operates two locations in St. Paul; they have been in business since 1979 and offer a patronage dividend to their members; membership is $90. They carry a wide assortment of products suited to their diverse neighborhood.
On the southern side of the Twin Cities is Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville. Marketing and Member Services manager Charli Mills told me, “Thirty years ago a group of moms scraped up enough investments to open a small co-op. Specializing in whole ingredients sold out of recycled pickle buckets, this small group set the expectation for natural foods in our area. Growing gradually, but deliberately Valley Natural Foods now serves the south metro of the Twin Cities with over 6,000 member-owners.” Valley Natural Foods does offer reciprocity to visitors from other co-ops. They feature both a deli and bakery and have an emphasis on fresh food and wellness.
If your travels take you to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, stop in at Northwind Natural Foods Co-op in Ironwood. This is another store that started life 30 years ago as a buying club and “...evolved into what it is today by much trial, error, blind luck, determination and sheer grit.” Eva from Northwind tells me that they have many customers from our area that shop with them while on vacation. Northwind does offer reciprocity to members of other co-ops. They specialize in organic, local and bulk foods and will not knowingly carry genetically engineered products. Initial membership at Northwind is only $10; renewing members pay $15 per year.
Wherever you find yourself this month and throughout the year, take time to stop and visit one of the many great co-ops across our region.