I recently learned that the Hyde Park Co-op in Chicago has closed. It is always sad to hear of a co-op’s demise, but this hit particularly close to home—I was a member shopper at the Hyde Park Co-op when I was a student at the University of Chicago many years ago. I remember riding my bike down there after classes to buy the ingredients for my solo, grad student-income dinners to be consumed while studying at the dining table. The fresh peppers and house-made sausages sustained me through long nights of paper writing.

At the same time the Hyde Park Co-op was shutting its doors, our Co-op was opening a second set of doors at Willy West. What are the differences between the two co-ops? How can they allow one to flourish and grow while the other does not survive?

One of Willy Street Co-op’s major strengths, which has enabled us to move into ever-larger locations, expand our offerings and provide jobs to nearly 300 people, is us—the Owners.

Owners account for 95% of total sales at Willy East and Willy West combined. That figure is an outstanding indicator of the loyalty shown to the Co-op by Owners. You are not only Owners, you are frequent, regular shoppers. It also says that our Co-op is attractive and inviting—people who shop here are extremely likely to become Owners. The variety of products, the informed staff, the responsive management, the commitment to local, sustainable produce—these features, core to the Co-op’s mission—draw us in and bring us back.

With the opening of Willy West and the expansion of our service area, your Board of Directors has been thinking about how to bring in new people to the Ownership fold. Adding new Owners will ensure the continued growth and strength of the Co-op, making the possibility of a closure like that of the Hyde Park Co-op even more remote.

We have 28,000 Owners, but there are over ten times that many people living in our metropolitan area. How can we reach out to the diversity of communities in the area to let them know what the Co-op is and how they can join? Madison, with the university and state capitol, is a town of transience. How can we introduce the Co-op to newcomers to the city, and let them know they have a local, friendly option for their grocery shopping?

We’d love to hear your ideas for greater community engagement. The November 15th Owner Forum at Willy West will provide one opportunity for you to help us answer these questions of how to do effective outreach. Please attend with your thoughts and comments! Owner Forums take place before each Board meeting, usually from 5:30pm–6:00pm. If you can’t make it to the Forum, you can email the Board at all-board@willystreet.coop, or tweet your thoughts @willystreetcoop. I want to make sure that today’s graduate students are riding their bikes to the Co-op after classes, to bring home some local squash and cheese for a casserole to see them through a long night of hitting the books.