As the Director of Purchasing at Willy Street Co-op, it’s my job to oversee the product selection, pricing, and store layout planning for Willy North. I’ve been through a lot with the Co-op—I started many years ago as a Produce stocker at Willy East, I was the Produce Manager when we opened Willy West, and I worked in my current role when we renovated Willy East. In my 15 plus years of Co-op history, it seems to me that this project is both more challenging and more exciting than anything we have ever done.
What strikes me most about the Northside is its diversity. This part of Madison boasts an incredibly vast array of people of all income levels, cultural backgrounds, and food traditions.
In a nutshell, the challenge that lies ahead of us is: how do you create a store that is a reflection of this awesomely diverse part of town, provides people on the Northside with the nourishing foods that they want at prices they can afford, and also remains true to the core values of the Willy Street Co-op in terms of local, sustainable, and fairly traded foods?
Challenge accepted. In fact this may be the challenge that I’ve waited my entire career for. This is the type of store that could create a model for beginning to transform our food system from one that is broken and making many people sick; to one that nourishes ALL people of every socioeconomic background, while fairly compensating the people who grow and make our food, and doing it all as environmentally sustainably and humanely as possible. Certainly no store is going to be able to do all of those things overnight—it’s something that will require years of work, but we must start somewhere, and I think the Northside of Madison may be the perfect place to do it.
Thinking outside the box
When planning began in earnest for Willy North, my team quickly realized that we would have to think way outside of our normal Willy Street box, both in terms of store layout and product mix. Not only are we retooling our product mix for the Northside, but the store itself is about twice the size of either of our current locations, plus we are working with an extremely tight timeline and budget.
Our goal is to create acompletely unique shopping experience that is equally welcoming and accessible to former Pierce’s shoppers and Willy Street Co-op shoppers alike. We hope to provide an invitation to become familiar and comfortable with local, natural, organic, and fair trade foods, while also providing a judgment-free zone for anyone who prefers to purchase conventional food.
Both Willy East and Willy West already carry some conventional foods, but the product mix at Willy North will be much more of a “hybrid,” with a larger selection of conventional offerings along with our full line of local, natural, and organic products. Items from our IDEALS every day low price program will be featured prominently throughout the store, and we are planning to offer a selection of in-store case quantity deals on value priced natural and organic products to bring their prices down as far as possible. This type of product mix is unique to the Madison area—most other grocers use a “store within a store” concept where the natural foods are sequestered to a single section of the store or category. Ours will put organic and natural right next to conventional so shoppers can compare everything side by side when deciding what to purchase.
Full bulk aisle
Because buying in bulk is often the most affordable way to shop for many staple items, we are prioritizing the addition of a full bulk aisle at Willy North, with a similar selection to Willy East and Willy West. In the deli, we will be adding a self-serve hot bar and salad bar, as well as an olive bar. These are things that have been asked for over and over again by Northside Co-op Owners, and we’re happy to be able to provide them.
No juice bar
One thing that we won’t be able to add at Willy North, at least not right away, is a full service Juice Bar. In order to add this service, we would have needed to undertake a full scale remodel of the space, and that just wasn’t feasible given our timeline. We hope to add fresh juice in the coming year, depending on requests we get from Co-op Owners.
We are doing our level best to pick products for Willy North based on what the neighborhood has asked for and what our current Co-op Owners purchase at our current stores. That said, exactly what the product mix should look like is still a guessing game, and I can guarantee that we won’t get everything completely right off the bat. For this reason, we’re planning some extra room in our product sets so that we can easily bring in items based on customer requests after we open.
Our ultimate success depends on the engagement of our new Northside Owners and shoppers—so if there’s something you don’t see on the shelves that you want to buy, please let us know and we’ll do our best to bring it in for you!
See you at Willy North!