As clouds gathered on a grey September morning, a crowd began to gather under a tent in the parking lot of Sherman Plaza. Despite the sunless day, spirits remained high as cake was distributed and onlookers stood in anticipation as a line of speakers began to assemble in front of the microphone. Anya Firszt, the General Manager of Willy Street Co-op, was introduced and began to speak:
“Despite the dreary weather, nothing can dampen my spirits or my enthusiasm for our Grand Opening today. So thank you for coming! We are here to celebrate cooperating, community, job creation, and plain old hard work. I would like to extend a hearty thank you to our project team, our project partners, our Board, and our Owners for making Willy North a reality in what is the shortest expansion timeline Willy Street Co-op has ever had.”
One by one, various groups, partners and stakeholders were acknowledged, some of whom stood proudly in attendance. Although the list covered many names and diverse areas of expertise and involvement, each one represented a contribution, each individual had a stake in the project. After months of preparation, crossed fingers, countless questions, changes, and challenges, the day had finally come. As the ribbon was cut, Owners, community leaders, staff and the curious filed through the doors of Willy North to get acquainted with not just a grocery store but a new community centerpiece.
Willy North opening represents the culmination of a singular year in the history of the Willy Street Co-op. For Owners, community members and staff it has been a year of emotions ranging from apprehension, frustration and impatience to excitement and jubilation. But on this particular day of September 25th, 2016, one feeling was expressed more than any other, as folks from all corners of the community shook hands and spoke of gratitude.
As we transition from the end of one year to the beginning of the next, there is indeed much for which to be grateful. We are now seeing our Co-op transition into an organization generating over $50 million annually in sales while serving the Madison metropolitan area with three retail sites. Such an achievement requires that we as a community seize this opportune moment to pause and give recognition to all that has been accomplished over the last year and the many parties who have participated not only in our continued financial success but also in the ongoing achievement of our mission. The following are just a few ways Willy Street Co-op has worked to achieve our cooperative mandate over the past year:
One ongoing effort deserving of celebration is that this year we continued our partnership with InnovationKitchens, doing more structured planning in anticipation of a far greater supply of preserved produce on our shelves in the winter of 2016. In addition to serving our Owners by offering them this program, the Innovation Kitchens program provides an exciting outlet for our local farmers as it grows a whole new market in which to sell their products. This means a new way for Willy Street Co-op to strengthen our local food infrastructure by making local produce available to customers outside of the growing season. Partnering with Innovation Kitchens creates a pathway to building a stronger, more versatile regional food economy, ensuring greater food security for our communities through greater access to great local foods throughout the year. Such work iscomplementary to other efforts to keep local dollars flowing back into the community and our local food system. One instance would be the Local Vendor Loan Fund. This program allows Willy Street Co-op to act as a partner to various start up businesses, with the Local Vendor Loan Fund working to fulfill the following objectives:
- Make prudent loans to the Co-op’s local food vendors to support their expansion.
- Meet financing needs that may not be met elsewhere in a traditional financing system.
- Develop business capacity and prepare local food suppliers to be bank/credit union ready.
Through these efforts, the local vendor loan fund puts the hope of participating in a localized food system into the realm of possibility. The long-term impact we can have on our food system by providing seed money and money for seeds means that the work of the Co-op secures a future for farmers to come and an ever greater offering of locally grown products.
As we work to enrich our community, Willy Street Co-op Owners have had some great opportunities to celebrate and enjoy the healthy, vibrant culture of the neighborhoods we serve. In addition to the Co-op’s presence at many neighborhood festivals both on the eastside and in Middleton, the inclusion of our Annual Meeting & Party (AMP) within La Fete de Marquette amplifies our yearly gathering of Owners from a business meeting to a party. Ensuring this event is successful and enjoyable for our Ownership and community requires the time, effort and attention of Co-op staff working in collaboration with community members hosting the Fete. The Annual Meeting & Party brings Owners together with our Board of Directors to discuss the outcomes of the past year and the Board’s continued work to steer the organization into the future. This yearly occurrence also coincides with a transition in Board membership. This year we both say goodbye and give thanks to our departing members Courtney Berner, Mike Engel, and Dan Ramos Haaz as they complete their Board terms. Their collective knowledge, varied expertise, and many years of service to our Board and our Co-op will be deeply missed. We are also fortunate to welcome three new Board members to fill their seats, including Patricia Butler, whose deep roots within the Northside community will help to build a strong connection between Willy Street Co-op and the people Willy North will work to serve. In addition to the changing of the guard in our Board of Directors, AMP is a great time to consider how the Co-op has performed, and this year we had much to celebrate, most notably the achievement of our return to profitability.
Return to Profitability
In Fiscal Year 2015, Willy Street Co-op saw a negative income of $317,000. This unplanned loss came with some tough costs, including sacrifices on the part of staff in the form of some benefits and merit raises. Undaunted in their commitment to our Co-op despite these setbacks, staff rose to the challenge, and thanks to their ability to find ways to increase profitability and reduce margin, we ended Fiscal Year 2016 back in the black. This turnaround ensured that we could continue to provide Willy Street Co-op staff with competitive compensation in the form of cost of living increases and profit share, as well as the reinstatement of 401(k) matching beginning in 2017. Not only does profitability allow Willy Street Co-op to reward its staff, but it is also essential to accomplishing our mission. Without the ability to generate the income necessary to cover our operational costs, there would be fewer opportunities to hire staff members and ensure a high level of customer service, fewer chances to grow our organization and our impact on the local food system, and greater vulnerability from an increasingly competitive marketplace as traditionally conventional grocery retailers increasingly intrude upon the natural and organic market. Because we operate in an industry wherea mere penny of every dollar could mean the difference between profit and loss, the flexibility and diligence that have helped our organization return to profitability could not be more crucial. Operating successfully in the face of such challenges speaks volumes about the ability of a democratically run organization like Willy Street Co-op to build community ties in the name of values such as economic justice, as Owners and staff members are tethered in their commitment to the Co-op’s success. Such financial success is not only necessary to maintaining our current position in the community, but it is also foundational to expanding our reach and impact on our food system, our environment and underserved members of the community.
Growing our Impact
As we look forward, the Co-op is continuing to explore avenues for business, community, and environmental sustainability. This summer saw the installation of solar panels on the roof of our retail site at 1221 Williamson Street. Maintenance Manager Jim Jirous has been working with Solar Connections to bring the Co-op into the light of a clean energy future, as these panels will help to reduce our dependence on coal-based energy. This project, coupled with our continued efforts to report and improve on the Co-op’s sustainability efforts, will lead us down a path of fulfilling our commitment to our environment. Such a commitment must accompany our growth and expansion as we work to extend our reach into new segments of the community.
Opening of Willy North
While so many extraordinary efforts have been pursued by the Co-op over the past months, no other project has been at the forefront of our minds as much as the northside expansion. Willy North will serve the northside community as so much more than a grocery store. It will act as an oasis in a former food desert. The overwhelming requests for us to open this store and the positive response to this project show that Willy Street Co-op and its staff do something that reaches into the hearts and minds of our shoppers. It also means more avenues for local producers and farmers to sell their products, and we anticipate being able to increase the number of relationships we have with local vendors who offer lower-cost items that we haven’t carried before. Another exciting result is the chance to connect Willy Street Co-op with shoppers who have never walked our aisles before, many of whom may have only ever had access to conventional grocery stores in the past. Ashley Kuehl, a member of Willy Street Co-op’s Cooperative Services department, speaks about her enthusiasm for the development of these new connections: “I am excited about the efforts that we’re making with accessibility and I think as we go through the year we’re going to be doing more and more community efforts.” Ashley also takes note of the rarity of such efforts within the grocery retail industry: “It’s something that other grocery stores don’t do. I think the fact that we’re going into uncharted territories and we’re looking to improve on that and pursue outreach into the community is really exciting to me.”
In addition to providing an opportunity for Northside residents to access food locally, Co-op staff welcome the advantages and challenges that a new store brings with it. Jeff Dempsey, a longtime northside resident and the new Deli Manager at Willy North expressed his viewpoints on the new store: “I am thankful for the opening of Willy North and all the opportunities it has provided for me and the northside community.” Luke Vannest, another North Deli staff member, expressed similar sentiments: “I am thankful for the Co-op, where I’ve worked for three years and have had the opportunity to grow and really feel like I’m valued and all the opportunities given me.” Staff members like Luke and Jeff enjoy not only the ability to work in an organization where theycan explore new avenues and chances for growth, but also the working atmosphere Willy Street Co-op offers: “I really can’t imagine myself working anywhere else that would be able to provide me with the same healthy and supportive environment I’ve found here,” states Jen Barnes on her tenure at the Co-op. Such excitement over the work being done here, the commitment to community and the promotion of natural foods is integral to what makes Willy Street Co-op such a special place. Without our staff’s dedication to the North store project, their ability to think creatively in the face of strange new challenges, and their willingness to champion the vision of a grocery co-op unlike anything that has come before it, this dream would not have been realized. However, achieving staff buying into this dream would not be enough by itself to make Willy North a success. Just as the best seeds need good soil to grow, the efforts of our staff to champion this new store were supported by the voices of the community.
In the early days of this project, there was uncertainty of how northsiders would respond to Willy Street Co-op moving into the neighborhood. The Co-op was grateful when the announcements of evaluating the potential project and the decision to move forward with opening the new store were met with an outpouring of support from northside residents and others looking forward to shopping there. This project was also nurtured by the support of community partners including the Northside Planning Council, Madison Mallards, the Packer Community Learning Center, Kennedy Heights Community Center, the Sherman Neighborhood Association and many others. Most importantly, hearing the voices of countless Owners reacting positively to this site and this store helped provide the drive to move this project forward. Such support from many corners of the community provide the power that will continue to move Willy Street Co-op towards a sustainable, local, and fair future.
Where We Go From Here
Despite what superficial appearances might suggest, the goals and impacts of Willy Street Co-op involve so much more than just selling groceries. The Co-op acts as a force for good not only in our community but within our entire region: when we aid in the fight to stamp out food insecurity, when we take part in strengthening our local food infrastructure by building the bridge between farmer and consumer, when we empower our neighbors by telling them about where their food comes from, and when we provide peace of mind to parents seeking the best way to feed their family. The knowledge, patience, tenacity, and goodwill demonstrated by all those who take part in this organization creates an experience of shopping at the Co-op that is not just another errand to complete but rather an opportunity to feel like a thread in the fabric of our community. It is no accident that the opportunity to participate in the work of this organization attracts so many unique talents and viewpoints while simultaneously inspiring the commitment and devotion that contribute to making Willy Street Co-op something remarkable, and deserving of thanksgiving.