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Introducing Willy West’s Produce Manager

It’s funny how unexpected life can be. When I walked into the Willy Street Co-op in early July of 2001 looking for a job, I never imagined that day was the beginning of a journey that would lead me to California and back, and finally here, 10 years later, being named Produce Manager for Willy Street Co-op’s new second store in Middleton.

I was going into my senior year at the UW in 2001, studying anthropology, and trying to figure out what direction my life should take. I needed a part-time job, and the Co-op seemed like a great place to work. I already bought most of my food here, and I felt at least a little qualified since I had a bit of food-service experience, and I had grown up with organic, homegrown food on the table much of the time.

Amazingly, I landed a job in Produce, the department where I most wanted to work. During the next two years, I learned everything I could from the expert Co-op Produce team, and I quickly became hooked. I loved setting up beautiful produce displays and talking with customers about what we sold. I also loved the seasonality and constantly changing nature of the work—every day was different, and every season brought its own challenges and excitements.

During my senior year at the UW, I wrote a term paper about the industrial food system. Doing this research cemented in me the belief that our current food system is unhealthy in a myriad of ways, and that one of the major components to remedying it is to purchase food grown locally from farmers who use sustainable methods. This was an exciting time for me—not only did I enjoy my work at the Co-op, but now I fully understood the importance of what we were doing.

After graduation, I became a full-time Produce worker. I spent some time as a staff trainer, and was then hired on as a buyer. I learned a ton during this time, and I enjoyed every moment of it.

In 2003, a sense of adventure prompted me to move to Northern California. Lucky for me, there was a large and thriving grocery co-op in Arcata, the small coastal town where I settled. They were impressed by my experiences at Willy Street Co-op, and hired me on as a produce clerk. I couldn’t believe my good luck!

During the next eight years at North Coast Co-op, I moved my way up the produce ranks. I was promoted to Assistant Produce Manager, then Produce Manager, and finally Assistant Merchandiser for both of North Coast’s two locations. In that position I worked as the main buyer for both stores. I developed deep friendships with many of the local farmers in the area, and worked to bring more of their product to market, to merchandise those products in new and exciting ways, and to educate our owners about the amazing work that farmers do. I also helped North Coast develop their first ever Eat Local Challenge, which has now been successfully running for three years.

I had a blast in California, but after eight years of living thousands of miles away from my closest family members, it was time to come home to Wisconsin. In January of 2010, I packed up my car and drove home.

After a short stint as a temp at the Yahara River Co-op, and then at JenEhr Family Farm in Sun Prairie, I (amazingly!) snagged a job back at Willy Street Co-op, this time in the unfamiliar world of the Deli. Though I felt a bit lost at first in my role as Deli Manager, I quickly learned that I had an amazing crew who knew everything that I didn’t about prepared foods, and I only needed a little coaching and encouragement to make the Deli department shine.

My task was to turn around a department that had been losing steam for some time, and the team and I were able to tackle our problems and turn things around. We now have a successful department that contributes to the Co-op’s bottom line. As if to make my point for me, we were recently named Madison’s favorite deli in the Isthmus reader’s poll. What an honor!

Now I’ve come full circle, almost exactly 10 years from the day when I first walked into Willy Street Co-op looking for a part-time job. I’m excited to bring the produce knowledge that I gained in California back home, as well as the confidence that I gained as a deli manager who had never really worked in a deli before.

I’m also excited to have this opportunity to support even more local organic farmers than we already do, and to look for new ways to partner with them and bring attention to the hard work they do and the tasty fruits and veggies they grow.
I’ll see you in the Produce department at our new Middleton store!

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