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One Co-op; Two Stores

As I write this, it’s about two weeks after the votes to authorize Willy Street Co-op’s Board of Directors to expend funds to open another store were all counted. The result, as I am sure most of you are aware, was pretty much a landslide in favor of working towards opening a new store: 2,557 “yes” votes, 94.6% of the total ballots cast.

The infrastructure for opening a new store is very much in place. At the same time that the Board, its Opportunities and Negotiating Committees, and the General Manager have been researching and investigating potential sites for the new store, the Co-op staff and management have been working extremely hard to insure that staff structures are in place that will enable us to ramp up to multi-site operation.

So now comes the fun part—envisioning what a Willy Street Co-op with two stores (or maybe even more someday!) in different parts of Madison will look and feel like. We already know that the same local and organic products and quality service that owners count on from Willy Street will be present, no matter where the Co-op locates. And prices will be the same—a financial decision was made early on in the processof planning for a second store that prices have to remain the same at all Willy Street locations—even if a new store is located in a part of the city where the rents are higher than on Williamson Street.

But even though it’s the same Willy Street Co-op, on or off Williamson Street, the second store will surely have it own flavor and character, depending on its neighborhood, and the people who shop and work there.

What are other multi-site co-ops doing?

As we think about what a multi-site Willy Street Co-op will be like, we can take a look at some other multi-site cooperatives to see what they’re doing. Sometimes the variations are just a matter of location—New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa has one store in an established neighborhood in Iowa City less than a mile away from the University of Iowa campus, while their other store is in a strip mall between an Applebee’s and a bank (although still less than three miles from the University). Weaver Street Market in North Carolina has branched out into different types of co-ops as well as different sites—they operate an Italian restaurant called Panzanella, in addition to two retail grocery sites. Weaver Street has also invested in a chicken producing co-op and is partnering with a co-op housing group called Weaver Community Housing Association (WCHA), an affordable housing non-profit with three communities. Weaver Street is also building a warehousing and production facility. In Minnesota, Lakewinds Co-op has three stores: in Minnetonka (the first), Anoka, and Chanhassen. Each serves the needs of its particular community; for example, Minnetonka has a wood-fired pizza oven and a huge variety of items for special dietary needs, while the Chanhassen store has an artisan bakery that delivers bread to the other two stores and a paint and hardware aisle

Closer to home, in Wisconsin, Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee has three sites, all the same but different. The newest location, in Bay View, has a credit union and a café because those services had left the neighborhood. Bay View also stocks some supermarket namebrand items (that fit with their product policy), because there was no neighborhood grocery in the area and residents wanted these products. Outpost’s State Street store opens its deli first thing in the morning to make it easy for customers to stop in on their way to work, and has a larger meat department. The largest Outpost (Capitol Drive), sells the most vegetarian and soy products and devotes the most space to organic gardening products.

The same but different

Pam Mehnert, General Manager at Outpost says, “What we’ve learned is to make sure the store itself fits with the ‘brand’ of Outpost (our service standards, product policy, environmental focus), but allow the personality of the various neighborhoods and the employees of that location to be the real Outpost. The three are not identical, but you can tell they come from the same family.”

Sounds like a great model to me—as we build our second Willy Street Co-op store, let’s plan on the same but different, the kind of variations that we see in brothers and sisters, members of the same family.

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