At the Co-op we get all kinds of shoppers, or sometimes, the same shopper but on a different mission. One day you might be stopping by on your way home from work to run in for the gallon of milk, the next time we see you it might be to plan your Thanksgiving dinner for a vegan. No matter what you come into the Co-op for, one thing that is common amongst our customers is their expectation of our staff. Our customers expect a higher level of service than they would at any old grocery store. They ask questions about the products they are buying and the products the Co-op uses in running the business, check in on how their favorite Deli person is doing, find out what produce is coming in tomorrow or just ask where a good place is to get their bike fixed. Our customers expect these things from our staff, and our staff are drawn to work at the Co-op in part out of their desire to share their knowledge and passion for good food and alternative business.

Meeting the customer challenge—staff as local experts

Hopefully the following four staff profiles will help give you a sense of just where and how some of our staff knowledge and passions were developed, and why you really can say that at Willy Street Co-op, we’re your local experts.

Brendan Gorman, Produce Receiver

Before Brendan thought much about organic produce, he was getting an organic produce education—from his mother’s garden. Expecting high quality, organic produce was a natural standard for him. However, it wasn’t until he completed his degree with an Environmental Studies minor and took courses on global consumerism, that his passion for organic growing really took hold.

After college, Brendan moved to Vermont to work as a farm intern for a non-profit working with kids at risk, before starting at the Co-op in 2004. Brendan kept his hands dirty by taking a worker share at Troy Gardens for two seasons before he took a leave of absence from the Co-op to work on a farm in Dodgeville. There he gained experience doing everything from starting plants, to learning planting methods, dealing with irrigation, harvesting efficiencies and post-harvest handling.

All of these experiences have shaped how Brendan does his job as a receiver, and thus quality checker, in our Produce department. Though he can tell you what time of year particular produce would be best, he is quick to point out that just knowing when something is in season isn’t enough. “Daily contact with produce helps me pick up on differences in quality. They could look good coming out of the field, but if they’re handled wrong, they could look bad when it gets to us. If I can look at something when it comes in and say it’s prime versus past peak, I can say what’s good right now.”

Jeff Orr, Downtown Deli Manager

Jeff Orr is one of our newest staff members, having been hired to head up the Downtown Deli. His very first job was in a kitchen. “I was good at it; I enjoyed it; I liked the atmosphere, but I never thought of it as a career.” However after working in kitchens while studying English and Philosophy at the UW-Madison, and continuing to work in kitchens on weekends in law school at NYU, it seemed there was something more to it. After six years as an admittedly miserable attorney, his wife finally convinced him to enroll in the French Culinary Institute and begin his actual career in the food industry.

Aside from the techniques learned in culinary school, Jeff has plenty of experience with opening new businesses. He opened three restaurants in the Madison area, including Harvest, Cocoliquot, and Osteria Papavero. “I bring an understanding of how to get a place open, what it’s like to hire and train and motivate brand new staff who haven’t worked together. There is an uncertainty that goes with opening a new place. It might not be just how we expect it, but we have to be able to adapt.”

Justin Rassner, Health and Wellness Clerk

Justin started out in 2004 at the Co-op as an Owner Participant in the Juice Bar gaining experience, he hoped, to open his own juice bar. A trip to India spurred his interest in living foods. “I was there for the beach town,” he says, but he found out very quickly that the town was also infused with ayruvedic medicinal practices. Justin went to an ayruvedic center to get an introduction to their principles and says that was the first step to pique his interest in natural healing.

After giving up his entrepreneurial ideas and becoming an employee in the Health and Wellness department, Justin decided to get his Bachelor of Science degree from the Clayton College of Natural Health, and is currently in the process of getting his Masters, with an eye to becoming a Naturopathic Doctor.

Justin says he is lucky to have daily reinforcement of the principles he’s learned in classes such as enzyme therapy, herbology and classical homeopathy. He says, “Almost every day I learn something I can use on the job to answer a question on something I just learned. Putting theory into practice is almost instant.” But he is clear that his knowledge is not just from books. “I experiment with herbs and nutrients myself so I can speak from a firsthand perspective. If I’ve tried it I’ll be honest about how it worked for me. And I’m always open to feedback on a supplement. One of the biggest things people can do to help me is to let us know their results.”

Amber McGee, Art Coordinator

Co-op shoppers frequently compliment us on the good vibe in the store. Part of what makes that possible is the work of Amber McGee who, among other things, is responsible for the look and feel of the store. Amber’s work is informed by her education at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, where she got her degree as a fine artist. However, her real education came when she began working on internships with local theatres doing everything from lighting to backdrops. Amber says, “The work fascinated me. I liked the cooperation between a team of people working toward a common goal.”

She eventually moved on to do window displays for businesses and design several commercial interiors in the Milwaukee area. She moved on and became a part of a marketing team doing graphic design, which took her back to the Milwaukee Institute to get a degree in graphic arts. Before coming to the Co-op in 2000, Amber worked at the Outpost Co-op in Milwaukee where she learned about the natural foods industry, working in all of their product departments.

Amber is proud to say she uses 95 percent of display materials from St. Vinnie’s because, to her, “reusing is the ultimate ‘green.’” Her personal goal over next two seasonal displays is to use as much recycled materials as possible so as to not contribute more garbage. She adds, “I have to be more creative to figure out how to make cardboard interesting!”

Ask us!

Though these are only four examples of the expertise our staff brings and customers have come to rely on, we could easily dedicate an entire newsletter to this topic alone. The Co-op’s commitment to be an employer of choice (providing ongoing training for staff and flexible policies like the ability to take personal leaves of absence) all contribute to our ability to attract and retain some of the most highly skilled, informed and passionate staff you’re likely to find at any other grocery store in town. So next time you’re in, stop a moment and ask the meat buyer about the treatment of the Bell and Evan’s chickens, or the Deli clerk about the difference between seitan and tempeh—you might be surprised at how much you can learn at your trip to the store!