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The Importance of Not being Too Earnest

There’s a magnet for sale at Willy Street Co-op West with a picture of Oscar Wilde. He has this terrific grin on his face—like he knows something the rest of us don’t, and underneath his mug is this quote, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” This magnet became my inspiration for writing an article about the unique people, dare I say cast of characters, a dramatis personae Mr. Wilde may have written a play about, who work and shop at the Willy Street Co-op.

Of course, the most difficult part about writing an article about people is leaving out Owners and fellow employees whose lives and work deserve their own dedicated features. Short of posting the bios of all the Co-op’s employees with a few remarks—a roster of sorts—I decided to focus on a few employees and customers. There was no bias or reasoning or mathematical formula behind choosing whom I did. I simply wanted to tell you a little about a handful of people who make Willy Street Co-op a place that is about people first; a place where the only uniforms are personalities and where being a barefoot Owner is, in the words of Matthew McConaughey, “all right, all right, all right.” Indeed, the greatest organics at Willy Street Co-op are the people who shop here and the green collar workers who call it home.

ACT 1

Al Koch: The Dairy Farmer Who Fights Human Trafficking

Al Koch of Willy Street Co-op West worked as a dairy farmer in Waunakee, Wisconsin for over 50 years, or as he put it, “before he could walk.” He now stocks out merchandise in the dairy and bulk departments while enthusiastically greeting Owners with his copyrighted, “Are you finding everything okay today?” Although he’s retired from rooster reveilles, Al is still a dairy farmer at heart. Whether he’s stocking milk in the dairy cooler or emptying out a 50-pound bag of oats in the bulk aisle while carrying out conversations with Owners, Al is in his element. Willy Street Co-op is his new farm.

Al has a mission in life that’s very dear to him. In the past couple years he’s been to Ukraine four times where he helped establish a non-profit to increase global awareness about human trafficking, Lazarus International. Along with his counterparts in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, Al hopes to shed light about the fight against human trafficking, a fight that is becoming “increasingly important as the world’s population rapidly increases.” He loves how perceptive Willy Street Co-op customers are when it comes to his cause, and that’s just one of the reasons he loves his job. There are many, but that one is, “near the top.” Not having to clean barns has to be up there, too.

Anne Walker: East-Side Organic

Willy Street Co-op Owner, vegetarian and organic landscaper Anne Walker knows the east side location well. And she should; she shops there two to five times a week, or in her words, “a lot.” Originally from Milwaukee, Anne has been an Owner for several years and remembers the days when the current location at 1221 Williamson Street was still a bowling alley. Through the location changes and periods of construction, Anne has remained a Willy Street Co-op Owner for many reasons, namely, “the quality of the food, especially the produce and bulk.” For that we are forever grateful.

She also loves the fact that Willy Street Co-op is concerned with small farmers and the origins of our food. It’s the not-so-obvious elements of the Willy Street Co-op that Anne has also grown to adore, like the bike trailers that Owners can rent from the east side location to get groceries home; a subtle reminder of our Cooperative Principle Number Seven, Concern for the Community. “I really like the alternative ways to get things done,” she told me. But Anne also admits she loves running into folks as she shops. “It’s a social experience, and I can see people I can catch up with.”

Where oh Where is Bonnie Sweetland?

Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Maine, Switzerland, Arizona, Florida, Colorado and Wisconsin can all say they’ve been home to our next employee, Bonnie Sweetland. Her many locales reflect a blend of wonderful wanderlust and a sincere longing to bring balance to people through her medical knowledge. A self-proclaimed “adventurer,” Bonnie has worked in co-ops since high school and has a Bachelor’s of Arts in Environmental Studies with an emphasis in Alternative Energy Systems. She also possesses a graduate degree in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine. Bonnie works as a buyer in the Health and Wellness Department at the west side store. She also operates her own (part-time) acupuncture practice in west Madison.

This past January and February Bonnie was a volunteer for a four-member medical outreach clinic in Bhimphedi, Nepal. She personally conducted almost 1,000 primary care visits for subsistence farmers who don’t have access to medical care. “Most have never seen a doctor of any kind in their entire lives,” she told me. Many came into the clinic with broken bones, hepatitis, staph infections and ear infections. Through her acupuncture and herbal medicine, Bonnie was also able to treat patients suffering from knee and back pain. As if her actions weren’t inspiring enough—that is, flying around the world to a landscape many people may only see with the help of Google Maps—Bonnie told me her reasons for wanting to head to Nepal in the first place. “I wanted to break loose from the thinking that a busy, single mother has nothing left to give.”

Bonnie is especially thankful to Willy Street Co-op for allowing her to pursue her passion for helping people while being comforted with the knowledge that her position would be waiting for her upon her return. “Not many companies would even consider that,” she said.

Lee Davenport: Boomerang Baker

I’ve worked at the Willy Street Co-op for two years, and in that time I’ve sometimes felt like our Production Kitchen doesn’t receive the (public) attention it so rightly deserves. Located on East Main Street in Madison, Production Kitchen employees are an integral part of bringing sweet goodness into our bellies and lives—the behind-the-scenes all stars. The Kitchen is where I met Lee Davenport, a baker who will also have two years’ experience at Willy Street Co-op this July. Lee is a native of New York State who moved to Madison from Seattle, Washington. She also worked at Harmony Valley Farms in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Lee has actually left Madison three times, a fact she lights up with a smirk. “I come back each time for the great food scene,” she told me. We joked about finding the formula for why people boomerang from and back to Madison, but I think she’s on to something with “the food scene.”

Ms. Davenport’s been a fan of the Willy Street Co-op for a long time. Lee rides her bike to work when she can. She loves her job as a baker and that she gets a $20 monthly reimbursement from Willy Street Co-op for biking to work. At the top of Lee’s favorite future travel destinations is Brazil. “It would be great to see family there,” she said while sinking into a couch. Boomeranging from Brazil might be tough, but if there’s one person who could make it happen, it’s Lee Davenport. But for the sake of sweet goodness, let’s just hope they don’t need bakers down there.

ACT II

The Three Pauls

Scene I: A dairy cooler. A man wearing short sleeves. Early morning.

Paul Koller should really be named Paul Cooler. He’s known for wearing short sleeves during his shifts in the dairy cooler, but that’s not what makes him cool. Being able to recite obscure Beastie Boys’ lyrics off the top of his head makes him cool. His cold endurance may be the product of his love for skiing and snowboarding. He spent several years in the industry as a deli manager, beer and wine salesman and grocery stocker before arriving at Willy Street Co-op. His gait is waiter-esque—constantly on the move—and accentuated by his trademark kneepads. And I’ve only seen him wearing collared shirts. This might be a west coast thing.

Paul is originally from the Madison area and returned home to raise his two daughters in Mt. Horeb. He enjoys the life Madison has to offer, especially its reputation for sustainable foods and practices—a sentiment he wants his daughters to embrace. Paul also has family in Costa Rica. His reasons for working at Willy Street Co-op echo many of his peers: he’s concerned with what people consume and how our diets are constantly being challenged. He’s an ardent promoter of organic food and loves being on the front lines of food education. Each morning, Paul puts the Seattle (where he also lived) radio station KEXP on at the Grocery desk to remind us all that Seattle is just a song away. His globe trekking and experience make Paul a true gem from The Emerald City.

Scene II: A kitchen. A man singing. Early afternoon.

Paul Tseng is best described as hardworking and humble. A native of Taipei, Taiwan, Paul is known for his enthusiastic public cooking classes and Deli work at the west side location. Paul has worked at Willy Street Co-op for four years, but has been all over the world, and attended cooking school in Chicago. Every three years he makes a pilgrimage to Taiwan to reconnect with his place of birth and to visit the tombs of his parents. He’s also the go-to person if you know of a fellow employee who is having a birthday. Paul will stop what he’s doing and get on the paging system to sing Happy Birthday in his best tenor. He often tags his serenade with “forever young, forever handsome/beautiful.” It’s probably a good thing Paul’s last name isn’t Yell.

Like Lee Davenport, Paul prefers to ride his bike to work. When he’s not working, he’s gardening. A large reason Paul decided to move to Madison was the ability to be part of a large gardening community. “You can’t do that in Chicago,” he told me. One fascinating trait about Paul is his adoration of snow, calling it “a gift from Mother Nature.” Growing up in tropical Asia, Paul didn’t see snow for many years, so it makes sense he sees another side of it that we native Wisconsinites have been known, on occasion, to curse. Paul feels shoveling is a way to get exercise. (He is now at the top of my contact list.) This is also the way he views cooking, not as a chore, but as a learning experience, a way to get the most out of something by approaching it with a positive attitude. “Cooking is a way of sustaining life,” he said. His diet is largely vegetarian, but he’s open to try anything culinary. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and for the past two years Paul and I have been teaching each other Spanish. One of his favorite words is “nieve.”

Scene III: A grocery cooperative aisle. A man smiling. Late Afternoon.

Paul Bandow has been a Willy Street Co-op staple for fifteen years, although he’s not on the payroll…yet. He could easily wear a lanyard and nametag with all the knowledge he’s built up over time; shopping four to five times a week has that effect. (Let’s see, 4.5 multiplied by 52 weeks multiplied by 15 years equals over 3,500 trips to Willy Street Co-op.) There has to be an eggplant badge for that. Paul has a fondness for Madison and Willy Street Co-op because, “There is an unusuallyintelligent widespread interest in what is good food,” said the Georgia Tech graduate.

Mr. Bandow travels through the store with flaneur-like curiosity in search of newproducts and answers. “I learn something almost every time I come here,” he told me recently at Willy West. Paul has studied nutrition for 40 years and values the reciprocal relationship employees have with Owners when it comes to product knowledge: learning from each other. The most recent inquiry Paul made was why some coated wasabi peas resemble “boulders.” Often, the most obscure questions the employees at Willy Street Co-op get are the most educational and beneficial. Paul just has a fantastic, delightful knack for harboring them. I told him that the thickness of the coating on wasabi peas—which are offered pre-packaged in the bulk aisle—can vary depending on the size of the pea and the concentration of the coating. The following day, he came back and told me that he discovered some recipes using garbanzo beans as a great substitute for peas. Indeed. But there is no substitute for Paul.

Janelle Frey: I-80 East

Janelle Frey is the newest member of Willy Street Co-op I interviewed. She began her work with us in February and is excited about the sense of community she feels. “I really enjoy the Owners,” she told me. She’s a cashier at Willy East and is no stranger to the organic food scene. Her parents own Drew’s Organics in Waupun, Wisconsin, a company that specializes in organic, grass-fed beef as well as organic produce. They are a big reason why Janelle applied to Willy Street Co-op in the first place. As a child, she remembers coming to the eastside store with her family, a trip that took over an hour each way. “Natural, organic foods are important to me,” she said, echoing the philosophy her parents instilled in her.

Like several of her fellow Owners and employees, Janelle spent time away from Madison, only to hear the (loud) siren call back. For three years Ms. Frey lived in Santa Rosa, California, and worked at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. When she’s not assisting Owners with her magnanimous smile, she loves hiking, biking and the farmers’ market, not to mention hanging out with her family and friends. In many ways, Janelle exudes the endearing qualities of the Willy Street Co-op. She believes in her job and community, but most importantly, she believes Willy Street Co-op is much more than a place to buy groceries on a Saturday morning.

Epilogue

Mr. Wilde was right. We are all the proof.

Willy Street Co-op is indeed a wonderful stage for the cast of characters who make our stores the cornerstone of a vibrant community from our mission statement. Of course, that’s what you get when you unite a nonprofit organizer, an organic landscaper, an acupuncturist, a future Brazilian baker, a Space Needle, a singing cook, a nutrition scholar, a Californian culinary cashier and thousands of Owners. Yes, operating a business is important, but so is taking a break every now and then to remember how unique we all are, and how each and every role is crucial to the play we call Willy Street Co-op.

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