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Opening Willy North

September 1974, November 2010, August 2016: What do these three dates have in common? They are the birthdays of Willy East, Willy West, and Willy North: these are the three times Willy Street Co-op has opened a new retail site. It’s so exciting to be where we are today, with three stores serving the greater Madison area.

The opening of Willy North happened on a particularly short timeline, as part of an effort to limit the food desert status of the community that was previously served by Pierce’s NorthSide Market in the same location. I pitched the idea for this article probably for the same reason you’re reading it: I was curious about the process of opening a new store, and wanted to learn. As a Co-op employee who hasn’t been directly involved myself in the process of opening a new site, it seemed like high time to find out more about the magic behind the scenes—and share it with you!

Project Timeline

First conversations about Willy North started in October 2015. In April 2016, the Board of Directors voted to approve the soon-to-be-vacated site of Pierce’s NorthSide Market as the third retail site for Willy Street Co-op. The soft opening was August 15, 2016, and the official grand opening was the weekend of September 23, 2016. Many people put in huge numbers of hours and enormous effort over that timespan. For this article, I was only able to interview a handful of the many people who worked behind the scenes and on the frontlines to make this happen; so many more people deserve credit as well. One thing that almost everyone I spoke with told me is that the tight timelines—the absolute necessity to meet deadlines—made it easier to make decisions. And they did, and their decisions led to where we are today! Those who weren’t involved directly with decision-making, but were involved with doing the work on the ground of training, producing, and so much more, also worked impressively with tight timelines and changing conditions. 

Outreach

Outreach into the northside community was a huge part of preparations for Willy North opening. In January, Co-op staff asked northside residents and Owners what they thought about the idea of Willy Street Co-op taking over the Pierce’s location. We talked about itin the newsletter, on social media, at the Northside Planning Council, and at neighborhood association meetings. We asked for questions and concerns. Overall, the response was extremely supportive, along with questions about affordability and product mix, which we took into consideration then, and continue to.

The Co-op also had a stand at the Northside Farmers’ Market most of summer 2016, where we offered shelf-stable foods and a few basic refrigerated products, and could answer questions as well as sign people up to become Owners. 

We collected grocery receipts that we solicited from Owners and other community members to help us learn what people were actually buying from various stores, at what prices. We incorporated that information directly into our purchasing strategy, to inform what products we would carry at what prices. Product selection and pricing is an ongoing process, but this allowed us to get a good start on assessing and setting fair prices.

One piece of feedback that we got through early outreach efforts was about the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program that provides benefits for nutritionally at-risk women, infants and children. This led to the decision to offer WIC-approved products at Willy North.

Another common question we were asked was about giving gift memberships. Gift memberships have always been (and continue to be) available as a direct person-to-person gift: anyone may purchase a membership for another specific person. However, many of the inquiries prior to Willy North opening were about whether it was possible to donate to a general fund for gift memberships. Although Willy Street Co-op supports this idea, we are not in a position to determine who should be eligible to receive gift memberships. Our solution to this was to set up a fund through the Northside Planning Council. You can donate to the Northside Planning Council (call 608-230-1221), and they will determine who has financial need, and help people become Co-op Owners. 

Owner Bonds

One of several sources of financing for Willy North was the financial contribution of the Owners who purchased bonds this year. This provided $1.5 million in funding for the opening of North. You can hear General Manager Anya Firszt talk about the bond system online at https://youtu.be/Qk7OUSleZ-s, also accessible by searching YouTube.com for the Willy Street Co-op channel and browsing its video collection. The Owner Bond Drive for Willy North was the fourth one the Co-op has held over the years.

Hiring & Personnel

Jenny Skowronek was promoted from her position at Willy West to the Willy North Store Manager position before anyone knew for sure if there would even be a store. Based on the timelines the project team was looking at, it was necessary to hit the ground running—and hire for the position on the assumption that it would exist. Happily, it did. (Don’t worry, Jenny would have still had a job either way.)

Kerrie Lentz, Director of Human Resources, told me about the effort that the HR department made to recruit and retain current Pierce’s employees to work at the site when it became Willy Street Co-op. Two members of the HR department went directly to Pierce’s to meet with anyone who was interested in applying, and brought laptops on which they could fill out an application on the spot, if they wished. Ultimately, every Pierce’s employee who was interested in working at Willy North was hired on to do so, and the former Pierce’s employees were trained at Willy West prior to Willy North opening.

Of 62 jobs that were created with the opening of Willy North, either current Pierce’s employees or current Willy Street Co-op employees coming from other sites filled 36. The remainder, 26, were filled by external hires.

After the managers for each department were hired, they worked with HR to start the sped-up application process for Store Clerks. Typically, for non-managerial positions, applicants go through a two-part interview process: first, an interview with someone from the HR department, and if they continue beyond that, an interview with their prospective departmental manager. For Willy North, due to the tighter timeline, these two interviews were combined into a single interview with both an HR staff member and the department head.

Now that there are three retail sites in addition to the Production Kitchen and Central Office, Kerrie says, “I don’t foresee us ever having big expanses of time when we’re not hiring.” She encourages people to apply at jobs.willystreet.coop; if you need help applying, you can get assistance and apply at any of the three retail stores.

Space Challenges &
Opportunities

“Space?” you might say. “Willy North is huge! What were the space considerations?” What might look like spreading out from other vantage points had the potential to be more like squeezing in for one site: the Production Kitchen. The staff who had been producing hot bar, cold case, bakery, and grab-and-go dishes for two sites would now need to be producing for three sites—with the same amount of working space and storage space. I talked to Patrick Schroeder, Production Kitchen Category Manager, about the brainstorming that went into figuring out a new arrangement for storage and workspace. 

If you didn’t already know, all those little bags of pre-packed bulk items that you can buy in the bulk aisle—such as dried fruits and nuts —were previously packed at the Production Kitchen and then shipped to each retail store. The expansion to Willy North offered a new opportunity: Patrick did an analysis comparing refrigerated backstock space at all retail sites compared to sales volume, and found that North’s refrigerated space was 40% greater than East or West’s, with a projected sales volume for the store that would support the extra space being used for Willy Pack backstock. With this knowledge, the Willy Pack operation was moved out of the Production Kitchen and into Willy North, where the Packers work out of the Deli space. This freed up a large amount of space at the Production Kitchen, particularly storage space in the walk-in cooler.

As for handling the space at Willy North: Mike Burns, Merchandiser, created a very thoughtful merchandising plan. As he describes, “While designing and merchandising the [Willy] North store, I spent a great deal of time working to make the store approachable and comfortable to everyone from every walk of life. [Willy] North has almost everything you would find at our East and West stores as well as a rather large addition of what the grocery industry calls conventional products. My goal was to make a grocery store that is not shaming or segmented and provides both high quality organic and local food as well as more affordable options.  Most typical grocery stores have an organic section in the corner or at the end of one aisle, and as a traditionally natural grocery co-op, I did not want to create a ‘conventional corner’ or ‘conventional aisle.’ Instead, the idea is that all products are integrated.”

Equipment 

Willy North offered some unique opportunities and challenges due to having been a grocery store previously. Willy West required starting from scratch, as the location had been a Walgreens store. With Willy North, there were some obvious advantages of starting from a former grocery store, such as having some ready-to-use equipment. However, some of the equipment at Pierce’s didn’t suit the plans for Willy North. There were two 74-foot frozen bunkers that exceeded the Co-op’s needs for freezer merchandising space, of which there was already plenty. These got removed, which made space available for offices and pallet deals. 

Purchasing full truckloads of items saves the Co-op money, allowing us to offer lower prices on those items for shoppers. With pallets out on the large retail floor, these items can be displayed where they’re stored. What’s more, Willy North will have the ability to ship products purchased in pallets to Willy East and Willy West so that shoppers can get those same deals at all sites.

Caitlyn Tompkins, Brand Coordinator, was happy to tell me about a particular community connection with Willy North equipment: the big community table in the Commons was made by the same carpenter who made the wood signs for both Willy North and the Willy East remodel—Andrew Black of Black Fine Woodworking, based in Columbus, Wisconsin. 

Product Mix & Values

Willy Street Co-op has 34,000 active Owners, and in any given year, 450+ food producers. That necessarily requires a balance of various values amongst all of those Owners and producers. Willy North Project Manager James Phetteplace (also Director of IT) comments, “Willy North is an attempt to change that balance, in favor of meeting the needs of the neighborhood and setting aside our judgment about what is acceptable, what is not acceptable, to put on the shelf as product.” James, himself a north sider, comments, “I can personally do all my shopping now at one place, and I don’t have to go to two separate grocery stores to get everything, all my food needs met, and I’m also not shamed for my family’s choice of what we’re going to eat.”

Willy North started out by stocking only 90% of the shelves for opening day. Brendon Smith, Director of Communications, told me that Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis, MN, recommended this strategy for opening a new store, because it leaves room for requested products to be added without removing anything else. 

What’s it like on the retail floor?

Store Clerk Anna Wolford transferred to Willy North from Willy East, where she had been working since 2014. When I asked her what interested her about moving to North, she said, “My personal beliefs lean...toward providing accessible goods [to] those who simply cannot afford the options that a natural foods co-op or store generally offer...I’m also concerned [about] all of the gentrification around Madison and hope to be a part of making sure we don’t drive people out of the neighborhood.” Of the work itself, she says, “My day-to-day is almost never dull. Almost every day, there are a bunch of new products that weren’t on the shelf the day before, or a new way of carrying out a task. I really loved the influx of outside applicants because there are so many different ways of doing things that the Co-op generally doesn’t do, and seeing new ideas going into practice is something I get giddy over. It’s pretty fun.”

As Anya Firszt reports, sales to date have been very strong at North. Sometimes new stores don’t come up with the sales they needed to support the project right away, but they have been at North. This is great news for the leap of faith and all the hard work that staff, Board members, and community members took in getting the store open as efficiently as they did. Of course, we thank our Owners and customers for the strong sales—your role in shopping your stores is the bottom line, and what we’re all here for!

Feedback

A refrain I heard from many people I interviewed was about encouraging feedback from the community. Willy North is still new, and we’ve gotten plenty of positive feedback, but that doesn’t mean we’re done. We know that there is room for improvement, and we want Owners and shoppers to know that this is a work in progress! As Anna Wolford told me, “I encourage anyone and everyone who feels strongly about our selection and pricing to keep giving us feedback. Never stop. We try to make sure your concerns are heard and the more people want something, the better chance we will find a solution as fast as we can.” According to Kirsten Moore, Director of Co-op Services, “It used to say right on the customer comment card, ‘We don’t respond to product requests unless they’re fulfilled.’ We decided to change that, and make sure that people knew at least, hey, we got your message, it’s now in our database, and we’re looking at it; we’ll let you know if it comes in.” Jenny Skowronek explains, “We want to make North what North shoppers need and want.”

Megan Minnick, Purchasing Director, offered some insights about Willy North carrying foods on the approved list for the WIC program. She explains that the WIC product selection was a learning curve for a Purchasing team that’s accustomed to buying a particular kind of product. For WIC, eggs have to be white, and cannot be cage-free. Anything in bulk is automatically disqualified even if the price is better. Understanding that these standards may be troubling to many Co-op shoppers, she notes, “The state manages the program. Anybody can go to the state and lobby them to change these rules, and if there’s enough people that do that, then maybe it could be a little more open to other products.”

Cooperation &
Community

The people making decisions in this project aimed for true collaboration, trying to put the needs of the community first. For example, when Pierce’s was closing, the Northside Planning Council approached the Co-op about the idea of running a grocery shuttle for northside residents to access groceries before Willy North opened. The Co-op loved the idea, and offered to donate to support the endeavor. The Northside Planning Council followed up; to paraphrase, “What if the shuttle went to another grocery store, too? Would that be a deal-breaker?” Nope! Brendon Smith recollected the conversation within the Co-op: “Is it about access, or is it about trying to get people only to the Co-op? We said: it’s about access, so of course we’ll support it, even if it takes people to a different grocery store. It’s not about that.”

Another outside-the-box solution involved shopping carts. Brendon described how this question came up: Pierce’s had an issue with shopping carts going missing; how did Willy North plan to prevent this from happening? The answer: we wouldn’t. As Brendon explained, “The problem isn’t carts going missing, the problem is people can’t get food home. So how can we help with that?” The solution: “We’re working with some north side organizations to have cart drop-off spots where people can bring carts back and they can go and pick them up; and, as part of the grant that we got, we got extra carts so that we ask people to check in with the desk if they need to borrow a cart.”

In Sum

As you can probably tell from all of the above, the opening of Willy North wasn’t really the end of a process—it’s just the   beginning. It’s a beginning that got off the ground with mind-boggling amounts of hard work, and well-earned success. We’re all completely capable of building off that momentum to create a thriving retail store to serve the north side and all of the Madison area. And maybe more: as James told me of his role as Project Manager, “I look forward to doing this again.” Michael Burns reflected, “Not only do I work with the best groupof 300-some-odd people I’ve ever worked with in my life, but I’m also part of something greater that most other grocery stores could never imagine: A group of invested folks sharing common ideals that still really do have a voice in a large company that genuinely cares about its community.” And as Anya so aptly summarized: “Together, we can achieve a lot.”

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