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A Peek Inside the Downtown Store

Have you passed by the corner of Broomand Mifflin Streets lately? Did you peek in the first floor windows of Metropolitan Place to see how the new Willy Street Co-op—Downtown is shaping up? Regardless of where you live, work or play in Madison, your Co-op membership applies to both stores, offering you more flexibility in where and when you shop. We hope that you are as excited to experience the new downtown store as we are!

When I asked Downtown Store Manager Wynston Estis what she expected we might spy through the windows in January, she said, “I hope members see that the conduit, plumbing, and other underpinnings are in place; a floor with plumbing roughed in, drywall construction of meeting rooms, and interior walls. We should have the loading dock nearly complete. The dock is a major component of the build-out due to our commitment to being fully ADA compliant as well as preserving the efficient use of the dock space for receiving goods.”

Initially we had hoped to have the new, downtown store open this month, but in the way of many big construction projects, the timeline shifted a bit as we worked through the leasing and design process. At the time of this writing (in mid-November) General Manager Anya Firszt is comfortable projecting March 15th as the (approximate) big day. In the meantime, let me open the doors a bit and give you a little preview...

This project began literally from the ground up. When we first gained access to our new space in July the floors were still dirt and gravel in places. There were no walls, no stockroom, no offices; we were dealing with a shell that had doors and windows. Amber McGee, the Co-op’s Art Coordinator, feels that beginning from this “grey box” stage has been a great advantage, allowing her and the rest of the design team an enormous blank slate to play upon. She says the look of the store when finished will have many familiar touches for members but at the same time be a little more polished and updated.

Green features

Anya told me, “One of the most exciting things about the design of the new store is the number of green features we’ve incorporated in the refrigeration and HVAC systems. We hope to achieve a standard that would meet or exceed LEED criteria for commercialinteriors.”

According to the website of the U.S. Green Building Council, “...the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings... LEED promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.”

The outdoor courtyard

Approaching the front entrance of the new store, shoppers will recognize a Co-op signature—an outdoor courtyard incorporating a cob wall, an enclosed seating area and of course, plants. We are planning for plenty of bicycle parking, knowing how many of our members utilize that mode of transport. There will be a discovery garden for the young and young-at-heart, and the canopy over the entrance will support a green, growing roof. This will provide a pleasant focal point for building residents on the floors above, but also will absorb heat and rainfall and give our entrance a truly organic look and feel. Eventual plans include space for small vendors to set up in the courtyard. These might include seasonal things such as garden transplants, herbs, or maybe some farm stands not available at the regular markets.

Ken Saiki Design of Madison created the landscaping plan and, according to Wynston, “It’s lean but lush at the same time, with a fantastic list of indigenous and medicinal perennial flowers, grasses, ground covers and shrubs to help keep things green and dampen the city sounds.”

Energy efficiency

The store will be accessed through airlock entryways. Airlock entries help to conserve heat and air conditioning and should also keep staff and shoppers more comfortable. Stable indoor temperatures will help all our refrigeration equipment to operate more efficiently, too. As you probably know from your home appliances, refrigeration generates quite a bit of heat. We are using a reclamation process to capture that heat and use it to pre-heat water before it reaches the water heater, which saves a substantial amount of energy. The variety of energy saving measures in the project will garner us a tidy rebate—about $8,000—from Focus on Energy, as well as resulting in smaller monthly utility bills, according to David Waisman, our Director of Finance. That’s good news for our bottom line and for the environment.

Co-op Owner Jamie Campbell is part of the team working on energy efficiency in his role as an engineer with Sustainable Engineering Group. Jamie told me that, on average, an American grocery store uses about 520,000 kilowatt hours of electricity each year—we hope to reduce that by about one-third. We should also save more than 700 therms of natural gas annually, for a combined cost savings of about $14,000 each year.

We are lucky that many windows were built into this location; we will take advantage of all that daylight, and enjoy a store that uses less energy for lighting and provides a more pleasant and comfortable environment for working and shopping. The lighting systems in the store will be energy efficient as well, including LED lights in the freezer doors. The diffuser covers used in light fixtures will be made from EcoResin, which is a nontoxic product incorporating 40 percent post-industrial waste. It comes from a company known as 3-Form and they are responsible for the full cycle of their materials—when a customer is finished using one of their products, or has a damaged piece, 3-Form takes it back and reforms or recycles it into a new product. Good for us, good for them and, most importantly, good for the environment.

Floor space

The retail floor space in the Downtown store is a bit smaller than we have on the Eastside, at 8,750 square feet as opposed to approximately 9,500. Because we are committed to bringing in a wide product mix, we have to stretch things upward a bit. Shelving units will be about a foot taller throughout much of the store, but don’t worry, plenty of staff will be available to assist those of us who are vertically challenged. One other structural difference you may notice Downtown is that the support columns in the space are much bigger-”seriously big,” “humongous,” and “whoa” are all descriptions I’ve heard!

Sustainable features

Other sustainable features you will find include chairs made from wood and linoleum, rather than plastic; Dakota Burl countertop surfaces which are crafted using sunflower hulls; doors that were purchased from ReStore are now masquerading as signboards; reclaimed barn doors found regionally will be used to compartmentalize the commons space when needed; reclaimed decorative iron scrollwork will also be used in the store.

Amber McGee has been working with Elizabeth Cwik, a designer employed by Linville Architects, to find all these materials and said, “I am so excited that the Co-op is able to reuse so many elements in the design, keeping demolition waste from other projects out of landfills and saving money in the creation of the new store at the same time.”

Amber has found being a key part of the design team to be an energizing experience and told me that she “really enjoyed watching the interworkings of the various teams of engineers, architects and designers involved in the process; seeing how they cooperated and worked off each other’s ideas to make everything fit together in the best possible ways.”


The cash register system will be virtually identical to what members are used to seeing at the Eastside store. Victor Bakunovich is our Director of IT and he told me that he wanted to be sure to purchase a system that was a good financial value, so he acquired machines that another co-op was replacing. This will also make it easier for current staff to train new cashiers as they are hired and means that any Front End staff working at the Eastside store could make a seamless transition to the Downtown location.

Victor joined the Co-op management team several months ago and was drawn to the job in large part because of the expansion into a second location, seeing the Co-op’s growth as a sign of a healthy business that would offer the challenge of needing new and better systems and analysis. He is engrossed in that challenge, building a wide area network that will allow both retail stores and our Production Kitchen to communicate efficiently and accurately. He thinks it will be exciting to see sales data from both stores that will show the buying trends at each and to have that data analysis readily available to store management, enabling them to quickly respond to what may be very different customer needs.

So, now that you know some of the basics about the building itself, let’s take a look at the other important things in the building—namely the merchandise and the staff.


While your favorite brands of natural foods, bulk items and our fantastic produce will still be important anchors Downtown, there will be a few changes too. Perhaps the most obvious will be the full-service meat counter in addition to your favorite packaged and frozen meat products. Negotiations with the Seafood Center are underway at the time of this writing, but it is expected that they will be on board to serve customer needs Downtown as they already do at the Eastside store. Another new addition to the Downtown store will be a selection of wine and beer—the lineup hasn’t been fully decided yet, but according to Wynston, it will most likely feature local wines and microbrews, with the final assortment to take members’ purchasing habits into consideration. Expect to see a greater emphasis on fresh and Kitchen-prepared foods Downtown to fill the needs of the lunch and after-work crowd, as well as students and other nearby residents.


There will be many familiar faces staffing the Downtown store too. Several staff members are switching to the new location as well as into new jobs through promotions. Last summer all members of the staff were given the opportunity to submit our names for consideration for any new position that we were interested in working. That led to job changes and promotions for several people who have been training hard the past few months in order to be ready for the challenges the new location will offer them. Those transfers also created opportunities for other staff members who wanted to stay at the Eastside store, but also were looking for the opportunities offered by a new position.

Wynston Estis is the new Downtown Store Manager. Wynston has been a member of the Co-op staff for many years, working a wide variety of positions. In her words, “I started in the Front End and Grocery in 1992. Anya hired me as a stocker in Grocery three days a week and I worked two days a week as a cashier. I eventually became a full-time stocker in Grocery; an odd orders buyer (not the main vendors of Golden Guernsey, North Farms or Blooming Prairie), primary grocery buyer, assistant manager, and grocery manager, which I did for five years until we moved to the 1221 site. Grocery used to manage all the cheese, body care, meat and fish, as well as the departments that it currently manages. After the 1221 site opened I filled the roles of store merchandiser, assistant store manager for product, and now Downtown Store Manager.”

Alex Risch has been promoted to the position of Downtown Grocery Manager. Alex joined the Co-op staff in 1998 as a grocery stocker. When the current store moved from 1202 to 1221 Williamson, Alex moved too—into the job of bulk coordinator until he left to attend college in 2000. In 2006, Alex returned as a dairy stocker and then the refrigerated/frozen buyer. The past few months he has been serving as Assistant Grocery Manager at the Eastside store, learning the ropes. Alex thinks the smaller footprint of the Downtown store will create new challenges for the Grocery department there and said, “My team will need to be really organized in order to keep the retail shelves full and the back-stock manageable. I will also be personally challenged in that this will be my first experience as a department manager.”

Brandy Boyle will fill the Produce Manager’s slot Downtown. Brandy brings five years of retail produce experience to her new position, with almost three of those years here at the Co-op, first as a stocker, then a buyer and currently as the Assistant Manager of the Produce department. She has also gotten some very practical training through jobs on local organic farms and as an avid gardener and cook. Brandy told me, “I am interested in transferring to the Downtown store and into my new job because I like my work to be challenging and exciting. I am passionate about local organic food systems and love being a part of it; the work is very rewarding! I am looking forward to helping the Produce department at the Downtown location be as amazing and awesome as the one at the Eastside store.”

Brandy is planning a few new things for Downtown: “The Produce department downtown will be a little different than the Eastside in that we will be striving to offer more ready-to-eat options for our customers on the go. This will include more fresh fruit salads, veggie snack packs, stir-fry mixes and individual sized, pre-packaged salads. We will be similar in that organic produce offerings will be the focus of our department. We will continue to support our local farmers wholeheartedly!”

There will be a Health and Well-ness/General Merchandise department in the new store as well. Matthew Fure will be managing that area. Matthew has been the Assistant General Merchandise Manager at the Co-op for over a year-and-a-half. Matthew said he was interested in working Downtown because, “I’ve lived downtown since I moved to Madison and am very excited for the opportunity to work downtown. The most exciting thing for me is having a co-op in my neighborhood again.”

Kristin Esselstrom will be taking on the post of Front End Manager Downtown; she has been the Eastside Front End manager since December 2006. She had been the Assistant Manager at St. Vincent de Paul on Williamson Street prior to that and has also managed the gift shop at Little Norway in Blue Mounds. She also maintains her own online retail site. Kristin decided to take up the challenge of moving to the new store because it is much closer to her child’s daycare and her husband’s job, saving the family valuable commuting time and just for the sake of the challenge involved in helping the new store become successful.

Kristin oversees the cashiers and works to make sure that the checkout experience is a smooth one. She anticipates quite a bit of interaction with the Eastside store on this front in order to maintain consistency in various policies and practices. She told me, “I’m excited to see what the Downtown store looks like—the ‘vibe’ that it gets from the neighborhood; as well as working with the new staff and being able to promote some of the great staff we have at this store to help us get the Downtown Front End up and running smoothly.”

At the time of this writing, interviews for the position of Deli Manager at the new store were ongoing. Applicants include both internal and external candidates. We’ll update you when we have more news.

Dean Kallas has been heading up the Grocery Department at our flagship store for over seven years. He is transferring that product and data experience to the role of Purchasing Manager for the Co-op, so his familiar face is now found in the officemore than on the sales floors some days. All the product department managers at both stores are now able to take advantage of Dean’s knowledge as they work with him to develop the product mix. Dean is excited that the Co-op will now have a second site to help spread the sales out. As he put it, “1221 is raging full on!”

Of course General Manager Anya Firszt remains at the helm. She has been working hard for several years to make the second retail site a reality and continues keep things on track. Once the store is open, her days might relax a bit. “Ensuring that all three sites—both stores and the Production Kitchen—are performing (as well as they can) to meet the needs and goals of the organization will be the priority for the next 18 months. Working with the Board to develop a long-range plan, for the next five to ten years, would be another priority once the Downtown site is open,” according to Anya.

I asked Anya what about the process of opening the Downtown store was most exciting to her and she said, “Transforming a dark gray shell into more than just an efficiently designed retail space, but one that also includes color and visually pleasing accents to make the shopping experience fulfilling and ties us to our roots.”

There will be many new people hired to staff the new store and fill openings at the Eastside location as well. Human Resources Manager Sarah Dahl is putting the final touches on plans for a job fair to be held next month. She expects to hire about half of the 90 Downtown, full- and part- time positions at the job fair. Sarah thinks the pace and flavor Downtown may be different and said “We will be looking for people with exceptional customer service skills, of course, and people who like a fast pace and are interested in working with senators, seniors and students.”

Sarah gives the Co-op points for hiring all but one of the new managers, so far, from the ranks of the existing staff and is proud that new, entry-level Co-op hires will be earning the Dane County Living Wage regardless of which location they work at. A newly organized Employee Council will help to keep all staff connected and up-to-date on policy and product changes.

Sneak peek party andgrand opening

Keep an eye on the calendar for celebrations to inaugurate Willy Street Co-op—Downtown. Event Coordinator Jack Kear is lining up some good times—look for a sneak peek party Downtown next month that will include food and entertainment and of course a grand opening celebration to happen later in the spring. See you at 337 W. Mifflin Street—Willy Street Co-op—Downtown!