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Willy North—Two Years Later


By Katie O’Connell-Jones, Owner Resources Coordinator –West

Happy second birthday Willy North! As part of the Co-op Services team, I have the privilege of interacting with our Owners and customers that reside in Madison, Middleton and the surrounding areas. It seems at every event I attend, such as outreach events or pitching in at local farmers’ markets, people ask me “Hey, how’s Willy North doing? Is the store finding its groove? How is the store’s relationship with the community going?” In this spirit, I thought it would be interesting to address some of these questions and give Owners a snapshot and update on the progress of the Co-op’s newest location.


First, here is a quick refresher on how Willy North came to be a reality. In 2014, Owners voted to open a third store within the next three years if a suitable opportunity presented itself. Owners wanted more access, to provide more local items in higher volumes, to support local food security, and finally to continue our Ownership growth. There were many location options from the perspective of a supportive market, but the Owners, in large part, requested we focus on underserved areas of our community.

In 2015, Pierce’s notified the Northside Planning Council they were planning to close. Since Pierce’s was the only grocery store serving the Northside neighborhoods, the area was about to become identified as underserved in the City of Madison, or lacking an adequate and nutritious grocery option. The Northside Planning Council wanted a community-based solution, and time was short when they approached Willy Street Co-op for support. After lots of consideration, asking ourselves many questions, and working with area residents to assess the Co-op’s compatibility with the community, the Board of Directors and Owners gave us a resounding “thumbs up” in April 2016. Willy North opened in August 2016, and suffice it to say the rest is history.


Let’s get the financial questions out of the way. By reference, West opened under a similar model as East, with a small overall footprint and like product offerings. North, however, moved into and rebranded a conventional grocery store with over two times the space. That required a paradigm shift in the modeling for our Co-op.

The first year started off a little slower than planned but certainly within the realm of expectations. As we learned how to run a larger store with a product mix that included more conventional grocery items, things began to click. Year One culminated in just under $11 million in sales. In the second year we hit our stride and exceeded our $12 million sales budget. Now we are also enjoying a beautiful patio, a new Juice Bar that opened ahead of schedule, and most recently, a new made-to-order sandwich station.

The last financial measure of the success for opening North is the growth in Owners. In the first year North added over 1,700 new Owners which bested East by 400 and West by 600 for the same period. In the second year, North enrolled over 800 new Owners, bringing the two year total to a healthy 2,500 plus Owners. In short, Willy North in its first two years is a financial success!


Now that we’ve addressed the financial aspect, let’s take a look at how North is getting to know its community. To answer this question I wanted to get the perspective of some “boots on the ground.” Recently I paid a visit to gianofer fields, Owner Resources Coordinator at North, and Robert Halstead, Owner Records Administrator (formally Owner Resources Coordinator for North). A firsthand look at some of the experiences they had as they interacted with Owners and reached out to the neighborhood was insightful. gianofer was invited by the Packers Community Center to share with residents the mission of the Co-op, what it means to belong to a Co-op, details about our Access Discount program and information about some of the products we carry. “It was very helpful to provide a visual of our products and demonstrate how the Access Discount program worked,” he said. “By enrolling in the program, Owners could save enough to pay for their equity share, thereby introducing them to more Co-op benefits.” She went on to say, “I shared with them how to save money by shopping the perimeter of the store, taking advantage of the bulk aisle and the seasonal produce.” gianofer says she is constantly doing outreach to the neighborhood and talking to people when participating in the Second Harvest outreach and the Northside Farmers’ Market.

Robert noted that engaging the community has been important. “We started our relationship with the community centers last December by attending the holiday potluck dinners. I attended a couple of them (one on each night). Willy Street Co-op provided the coffee for the dinner. My aim was simple, just to make myself visible. I brought a few materials (handouts from the Co-op) but I wanted to make my presence fairly casual.” He continued, “From my perspective, when I have the opportunity to visit with someone one-on-one or in a small group, the idea of talking about shopping at the Co-op when they may not have been inclined to do so has been pretty effective.” He is adamant that the outreach events, even when there is an opportunity to meet only a few people, is important to North’s success. “It seems like those connections are so worth it. The connections we make are genuine and not only is it encouraging for us but when you can see some of the neighbors we have connected with come into the store with smiles on their faces, maybe already knowing a cashier’s face and name, you know the Co-op is building lasting relationships.”

At this year’s Annual Meeting & Party, I was able to spend a few minutes to talk to a big advocate for North, Board Member Patricia Butler. Let me begin by saying her energy and enthusiasm for Willy North is infectious. She said the store has been a blessing for the neighborhood and it turned what was about to be a “food desert” into a small economic engine for the area. In her opinion, Willy Street Co-op moving into the former grocery store space stabilized the Northside Town Center and led the way for a Goodwill store, two restaurants, and a local gym locating there. ”Not only has Willy North provided the neighborhood with new food options but it is also a job creator.” She went on to say, “we have to continue our outreach but Willy North has been very positive for the community.”


Willy Street Co-op has more than 35,000 active Owners and over 450 food producers. Finding the correct balance, to satisfy varying values and Owners needs and wants in a whole new neighborhood continues to be an adjustment. Our Purchasing team is mindful of the many factors to consider when deciding which products and vendors will be offered. Megan Minnick, Purchasing Director explains, “North saw a huge expansion of our conventional and low-cost offerings.” She continues on to say, “The WIC product selection was a learning curve for a Purchasing team that’s accustomed to buying a particular kind of product. That said, North has allowed us to bring on a few new local vendors that are featured almost exclusively at North, such as Feed Kitchens, Fox Heritage Farm, Pappa’s Pullets and The Real ’Za and Mystic Pizza, local frozen pizzas.”

As North Store Director, Jenny Skowronek reports, “The Grocery department completed a big reset of its offerings this spring. Many new items were brought in and some discontinued in an effort to look for the right product mix for the store. We continue to learn and stock the products that the community is requesting, and this will always be an ongoing process. Our number one request from Owners was for a Juice Bar, which I am thrilled to say is open and thriving, and we are enjoying seeing new customers every day.”


We continue to serve our mission, addressing a critical need in the community. We’re growing our ownership, increasing our support of local vendors, expanding our way of thinking, and getting better at what we do. Looking forward, we will continue to have conversations with the community and work on finding the right product mix that our Owners want to see. We are very excited and optimistic. I hope, if you haven’t had an opportunity to check out our North location, you will! So light the candles and tap the kombucha! Happy birthday Willy North!

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