Willy Street Co-op
by Lynn Olson, Cooperative Services Manager
Anyone asked to give even a brief summary of Willy Street Co-op’s history will likely need to use multiple versions of the word “grow.” Since our Cooperative’s incorporation in October of 1973 through the following five expansions and with our latest growth (the Downtown store opening), the Co-op has been on the same path for over 34 years: responding to our owners.
In the early 1970s, members of a near eastside Madison food buying club, Common Market, responded to the closing of their nearby natural food warehouse by doing what neighbors in other parts of the city had been doing and created their own retail grocery cooperative. If you had the fortune of being a member of the Willy Street Co-op in 1974, you would have enjoyed a selection of wholesome bulk oats, whole-wheat flour, peanut butter and a limited produce selection. That was pretty much it. It was, essentially, a very small bulk department that was meeting the needs of its members. At that time, the store was staffed by a collective of workers who were paid based on a system of “Take what you need when you need it.” It wasn’t until 1975 that the first payroll was established and each worker was paid $50.00 a week.
Many of our original owners still reminisce with us about the joy they felt back in 1974 when, after only eight months of sharing that first location with Nature’s Bakery at 1101 Williamson Street, the Co-op was able to open a place of our own.
The storefront at 1014 Williamson Street featured 900 feet of retail space, making way for another spike in equity shares to 1,300 owners. Shoppers were happy to see a better selection of produce and more packaged groceries. But with no formal loading dock, delivery days at the store meant no shopping either. Each week the store had to be closed for all or part of two days a week to make way for the delivery truck to unload a steady stream of boxes through the only viable delivery door—the front door. Then, until all of the boxes could be unpacked and products stacked on shelves, the narrow aisles were too clogged to allow access for shoppers and barely enough room for staff.
Faithful staff and owners of the Co-op endured the space constrictions and inconvenience of those clunky delivery days for five years until a new storefront was successfully acquired at 1202 Williamson Street in 1979.
Commonly referred to as “The Old Store,” that location is where a majority of current owners remember first joining our cooperative. The site at 1202 Williamson is where we spent the following 20 years gaining knowledge and honing our systems and structure. The new store featured 1,600 square feet of retail space but represented much more to the owners who were ecstatic to be able to move among the aisles relatively easily and on every day of the week. The new building included a basement that was used for storage, offices and a break area for staff.
Equity shares (memberships) continued to rise during the early 1980s as word grew throughout the area about the selection and quality found at Willy Street Co-op. When the next expansion presented itself, owners supported the purchase of our neighboring property, Clyde’s Appliances, in order to create space for the first Deli in the Co-op. Owners and members were then elated to purchase ready-to-eat creations among their grocery selections, which now featured several more frozen and packaged items.
The widening awareness of natural foods and organic agriculture has propelled the growth of the Co-op and, even without a parking lot, the “Old Store’s” 2000 square foot retail space was precariously balancing the needs of its owners. Nearly 4,000 owners/members continued to voice their concerns about needing variety and, more importantly, better availability of the foods they’d come to rely on.
When the Eagles Club decided to relocate their social club to the far eastside of Madison, acquiring the property at 1221 Williamson Street quickly became a priority for the Co-op’s Board, bolstered by community support for the move.
By the time the Cooperative opened their new doors in 1999 with a full-service, 9,200 square foot retail floor and 42 precious parking spaces, the membership roster began to swell. Within 12 short months, the Cooperative ballooned from 4,000 to 10,000 owners.
The current retail site opened in a frenzy and fury, the likes of which have become legend as customers old and new gleefully filled their carts with groceries that had no time to collect dust before being swiped through the new registers. The registers rarely ceased beeping during the first several months the store was open.
One clear upside to the expansion was the opportunity to support more area farmers and food producers. The introduction of the Seafood Center and their fresh seafood counter was well received by owners who had requested the service when surveyed about their wishes for the new store.
Not long after moving to the 1221 site, the dramatic rise in owners/members forced several issues and areas for improvement. Sales grew from a modest $4.2 million a year to $6 million in the first year. The convenience of our Deli was instantly very popular and demand was high for our wholesome and freshly prepared ready-to-eat foods. Yet, customer comments came streaming in each week from owners who were distraught to find nothing to eat at 5:00pm. Without adequate space to store supplies or hold prepared foods, management of the Cooperative began to communicate to the Board of Directors that something needed to be done. The solution was finally in sight when space for an Off-Site Kitchen was secured at 1882 E. Main Street, which was designed to accommodate large-scale production for the Co-op. The new state-of-the-art facility began producing all of the entrees, salads and bakery items served at the Co-op in Spring of 2005.
Today’s Co-op is a far cry from the early days. The bulk section, an integral part of our Grocery department, features over 200 bins of dry goods ready for shoppers to package themselves. Grind-your-own peanut butter is still a perennial favorite, and we’re now happy offer grind-your-own almond butter as well. Several bulk liquid items have also been added to the department: tamari, honey, molasses, syrup, oils and vanilla. Other minimally packaged items offered in this department are conveniently pre-packed by our Willy-Pack department. Bulk Buyer Laura Burnham and four other staff members work full time to keep up with the steady flow of goods streaming in and out of this section. The modern version of our bulk section also includes a bevy of spices, cleaning supplies, including dish washing detergent, liquid clothes soap and Citri-solv, a concentrated all-purpose cleaning fluid.
Today’s Produce Department has earned its praise as one of the best in the area and Andy Johnston, Produce Manager for the last two years, was a natural fit after serving as the cheese buyer for the previous several years. Now Andy manages a staff of 13 people who buy, receive, inspect, prepare and display our fresh fruits and vegetables. Working on the Produce team is a constant race to keep the season’s most perishable products in stock and on display. The second largest challenge for our Produce department is explaining that when a fruit or vegetable is out of season, we’re less likely to have those items in stock due to our commitment and emphasis on local and seasonal produce. Andy and his buyers work more hours each week to purchase fresh produce from local farmers than any of our regional competitors. Not coincidentally, shoppers and farmers who can taste and appreciate the difference frequently applaud their dedication to that objective.
And Payroll is a far-cry more sophisticated in 2007 as our Human Resources team, led by Sarah Dahl and two staff members, ensures that every employee of the Co-op is well taken care of and paid as well as, if not better than, the Dane County Living Wage.
The present Grocery team is now guided by the new manager Pearl Weinandt, who after serving as Assistant Grocery Manager for a number of years, will be taking over for long-time manager Dean Kallas who was recently promoted to Purchasing Manager for the Co-op’s stores. Currently, the Grocery team employs over 22 people who work to keep our shelves filled. On average, our grocery department receives the bulk of our Customer Comments each month and nearly half of those are product requests for items that we don’t carry. Dean and Pearl, having worked together for a number of years, are quite familiar with the research and report routine associated with that many requests. Very often our research ends with finding that these products are not available to us through our distributors and/or we don’t have space on our shelves for any new items. Asked if there’s anything he’d like to say to the membership, Dean said, “You [owners] are always raising the bar and I love that. Keep up the great work!”
The basement of today’s Co-op features offices and workstations for over 30 people at any given time. Buyers, managers, even a staff break room are squeezed into the tidy space. It’s there that many of our Operations staff work daily to keep the store running smoothly. Communications, Information Technology (IT), Human Resources, Cooperative Services, Maintenance and Flow of Goods all have their own agendas and their respective staff members who now nearly outnumber the total number of staff working for the Co-op 15 years ago. Progress has its price and it needs a staff to keep it moving along. Manager of the Communications Department Brendon Smith manages four staff members who produce everything from artwork to the monthly Reader sent to owners’ homes. Brendon spoke about some of the challenges his department regularly encounters, “A perpetual challenge is communicating changes and improvements in services and products to our members, especially during periods when there is a lot going on.” Brendon elaborated on how his team accomplishes their task, “The newsletter is the Co-op’s main route of communication to the membership - it lists Co-op classes and events, offers a selection of Customer Comments, gives information about topics members have requested, and delivers news about how the owners’ Co-op is being operated.”
Other managers who work in the Co-op’s basement include Fred Broschart, Flow of Goods (FOG) Manager, who manages one of a few new departments created to maximize the Co-op’s efficiency especially as we move into another retail site. Fred and his six staff members have the task of ensuring that prices ring correctly throughout the store and that product is tracked from the receiving door to the shelves to your grocery bag. Although he’s relatively new to the Co-op, Fred understands and had a chance explain the challenges he sees his team facing. He said, “We are very often figuring out new and better ways to implement data solutions, and that task never ends.”
Dan Moore, current Deli Manager, joined the Co-op staff in 2000 and has made vast improvements to our prepared foods selection over the years. Dan and his staff of 22 employees serve hundreds of shoppers daily who are looking for everything from lunch to restricted diet eating ideas and options. Between the Juice/Coffee Bar, Salad Bar, Deli and Cheese counters, Dan’s staff receives an armload of Customer Comments each month and he is diligent about answering each of them quickly and honestly. “At the Co-op there are additional challenges,” Dan commented, “Making sure you are even more responsive to customers than in a corporate setting, maintaining relationships with local farmers and distributors, adapting traditional recipes to meet the needs of folks with special concerns, making sure that your staff have an informed say in business decisions, and balancing product and supplier choices to provide local/clean products. The real trick is doing all this while still focusing on the long-term financial success of the cooperative model.”
Another department that was able to benefit from each expansion has been Health and Wellness, which now enjoys a fairly large footprint in the store. Lisa Stag-Tout has been managing this team of five staff members for nearly three years. The challenges for her team are largely centered around the amount of information available about each of the hundreds of supplements and herbs offered among their selection. Lisa said, “Our department is expected to know a great deal about the supplements we sell. Because new herbs and formulas are constantly being discovered (or repackaged) to keep us healthy, it is particularly challenging to keep up with everything that people want to know. Regardless, we are committed to being available to field questions although it is important for folks to understand that we cannot ‘recommend’ or ‘prescribe’ any product as a certified health professional can. Our main purpose is assisting customers in finding the information they need to make their own choices.” Fortunately, owners and members of the Co-op have access to many resources to locate vital information regarding their health. One of the most thorough resources is the kiosk computer found in our Health and Wellness department which includes information from physicians and is reviewed by health experts. The program is easy to use and shoppers can search the database for important information like how a supplement might interact with a prescription drug then print out the information to take home. This program is also available from our website by clicking on “Living Naturally.”
Gene Hahn, Finance Manager before the move and for seven years after has seen the necessary addition of several staff members in order to account for our growing sales and expenses. Now five staff members work with our newly hired Director of Finance, David Weisman, to continue managing every aspect of our accounting, financial planning and reporting to members.
The Front End staff members of our Co-op, led by Front End Manager Kristin Esselstrom, have an especially challenging position and the distinction of having the largest team in the store at just over 40 people. They also have one of the hardest jobs to carry out as the final stop for shoppers, so their role is crucial to owners and members who rely on them for accurate ringing and excellent customer service.
Josh Perkins, Manager of the Off-Site Kitchen has taken great care in developing systems and recipes at the new site to utilize the time and energy of 17 to 20 staff members in the most efficient manner possible. Josh spoke about the special challenges inherent in this type of facility. He commented, “The cooks and managers in the Willy Street Kitchen face manifold challenges due to the unique nature of the facility. Besides producing large amounts of high-quality food to supply the home retail as well as external wholesale and catering clients, we must both uphold and document strict standards of temperature control and ingredient disclosure to ensure the safety and well being of our customers. In addition, of course, we do face the usual seasonal challenges that all foodservice establishments in the upper Midwest must—namely, that our supply and pricing must be very carefully monitored and managed at least six months out of the year.”
Simple solutions to eating well have been a common goal for Willy Street Co-op owners since those first few members moved from a buying club to incorporating as a retail cooperative in 1973.
Our Board of Directors have repeatedly been drawn back to the issues highlighted by shoppers who are sometimes disappointed to find their favorite items out of stock or the ongoing comments regarding lack of parking for both motorized vehicles and bicycles. In 2006, in response to the burgeoning use of our store and parking lot, the Home Delivery program was launched to relieve some of the pressure and, more recently, that service was expanded with the release of an online eCommerce website. Hopes are still to better serve our owners by creating more convenience for those who either don’t have access or time to shop in the store.
By the time the plan to open a downtown store was announced earlier this year, the Co-op had grown to close to 16,000 owners/members with an average of $13 million in sales yearly. Today’s Willy Street Grocery Co-op provides thousands of products ranging from açai juice to zinc tabs and the selection continues to grow with each new year. Now, as we’re poised to open our second retail site and we continue on that well-worn path, we can feel confident that we’ve been here before, and we can trust that we’ll be able to navigate whatever comes our way. And with the help of several key staff members who have been with us over the past 20 years like Anya Firszt, Wynston Estis, Dan Frost, Gene Hahn and a steady Board of Directors, we will have our guides and guards to protect our owners’ interests and see that the new store will be as practical and sustainable as every other expansion in our developing history.