Willy Street Co-op History

Co-op staff meetingSince 1974, the Willy Street Co-op has offered an expanding selection of natural and organic products. We strive to uphold owner values in all our activities through adherence to co-op principles, sustainable lifestyles and social responsibility in our activities. We also strive to give equal consideration to the needs of members and the right of workers to participatory management and a humane work environment. After all these years, we continue to be thriving cooperative business thanks to a tradition of quality foods, customer service and education as well as a strong connection to our neighborhood and history.

Willy Street Co-op at 1202Like many Madison co-ops, Willy Street Co-op's formation was influenced by the social and cultural forces of the 1960s and 1970s. During this time people became attracted to natural foods cooperatives in order to have more control over what they ate. Initially, this need was satisfied locally by a food buying club called Common Market. However, when it moved its operations out of neighborhood, the Co-op's founders worked to fill the void. The Williamson Street Grocery Co-op was incorporated in September 1973.

During this time the Co-op operated as a Buying Club out of the space located at 1101 Williamson Street (currently Mother Fools Coffeehouse). This location was shared with Nature’s Bakery and offered limited space for inventory and selection. A small, dedicated volunteer staff kept the Co-op operating while other members searched for a more permanent location and sold bonds to generate capital.

In September of 1974, the Co-op relocated to 1014 Williamson Street. This space featured a small storage area and 900 square feet of retail space that allowed for a more varied selection of produce and bulk foods as well as a limited supply of packaged foods and convenience items. At this time the members also agreed to hire a staff of six full-time workers. However, they were not initially paid but could draw up to $50 a week for sustenance, but some would take less or nothing until the co-op was on more firm financial ground. Fortunately, three months later the Co-op began paying these dedicated staff members. 

It wasn't long before the Co-op outgrew this space and in October of 1977, it relocated to 1202 Williamson Street (currently the Social Justice Center). This space had 1600 square feet of retail space and an additional 2500 square feet of office and storage space. It was also cleaner, more organized and much easier to navigate when shopping and the product line was greatly expanded to include more bulk items, health and beauty aids, processed foods, convenience foods, ethnic items and frozen meat and fish. The sales doubled almost immediately and the staff was increased to manage the much higher volume. Within five years, the membership increased from 1300 to 4000 members.

War protest outside store

During this period of growth, the Co-op began experiencing problems related to its staff and governance structures. At the time there was no functioning board of directors and the governance issues were being dealt with at monthly membership meetings. In order to streamline this cumbersome system, a board of directors was elected and began holding monthly meetings in March 1979. The original collective staff structure was also problematic since all employees shared the decision-making authority and responsibility in all matters and decisions were made by consensus. Staff tensions grew and began to have an effect on the profitability of the store. After its first two years of financial losses, the staff was restructured and the first General Manager was hired fall of 1982. 

By 1985 the financial outlook was improving and the business sharing the building with the Co-op relocated. With the help of member and bank loans, the Co-op quickly expanded into that space and added a greatly needed deli. Despite continuing organizational and staff problems in the late 1980s, the Co-op's sales continued to grow and in 1990 they were able to purchase the building and do a major store reset in 1995.

Digging behind current location

In 1998, the current history of expansion and re-location was completed with the purchase and extensive remodeling of the Eagles Club at 1221 Williamson Street. The store that is now called "Willy East" opened in October of 1999 and features 9,500 square feet of retail space and a total square footage of 20,000 feet. The membership strongly supported this expansion and relocation on the condition that the new store remained in the immediate neighborhood and that it retained its personal, friendly atmosphere.

The Co-op quickly increased the number of Owners and the Board determined steps were needed to reduce the strain being created on the popular store. In 2005 the Co-op opened its production kitchen to cook most of the Deli food and bakery products, as well as the food for its catering program.

The Board then directed management to pursue the opening of a second store. After two opportunities didn't work out, Willy Street Co-op selected a site in Middleton. The Co-op asked our Owners to help fund the opening of the second store and managed to raise one million dollars in Owner Bonds in only 39 days. The second store opened in November of 2010. The store, at 6825 University Avenue in Middleton, was a success, and the Co-op returned to profitability in only two years.

In 2016 the Co-op opened a third store, Willy North, at 2817 N. Sherman Avenue, in the former location of Pierce's NorthSide Market. The store was a bit of a departure for the Co-op - it was twice the size of either of the other two stores, and featured more conventional (non-organic) items than the other stores to offer a greater selection of lower-priced items.

The Co-op now has over 34,000 Owners. The number of employees has grown to around 420 (more than half are full-time) and annual sales are over $51 million dollars. During this time there has been an emphasis on not only addressing the needs of the membership, but also increasing staff satisfaction including meeting the Cooperative Grocer Information Network (CGIN) Living Wage for all employees.

The democratically-elected Board of Directors continues to steer the future of the Willy Street Co-op. As the Co-op continues to strengthen ties with vendors and neighborhood, community, and cooperative organizations, it remains an economically viable business. Thanks to many years of support from the membership, the Co-op is a vibrant community institution and a model of cooperative success.