Menomonie Market Co-op celebrates big new digs, looks toward future
The Menomonie Market Food Co-op’s brand-new store is the realization of a longstanding goal for member-owners of the 41-year-old grocery, which specializes in organic and natural foods. Constricted by a too-small location, the co-op worked for years planning, fundraising, and finding the perfect spot for a new store.
“We were delayed in our expansion for so long, I started to think it was all in my head,” co-op general manager Crystal Halvorson acknowledged recently. However, the new store is a dream no longer: The co-op plans to open Aug. 19 in its new 12,000-square-foot location at 814 Main Street East in Menomonie.
“Because we were so delayed in expansion, we were really able to do it right.” – Crystal Halvorson, Menomonie Market Food Co-op general manager, on how the co-op was able to create the “building of our dreams”
The grand opening is the culmination of a decade of strong growth for the co-op that coincided with an increased desire among Americans for more wholesome food grown closer to home. “I think everywhere there’s a real demand for more real food, foods that are less processed, foods that are organic in nature,” said Steve Hanson, president of the co-op’s board of directors. “We’re serving that need, and we also provide a lot of local foods. … We help to promote the local farm economy.”
Since moving into its most recent home, 521 Second St., in 2001, the co-op’s membership has ballooned from about 325 to roughly 1,800. That’s impressive in a relatively small city, and Halvorson cites several factors in the co-op’s growth. While meeting demand for local and sustainable food, the co-op also has become a destination: 37 percent of members live outside Dunn County. In addition, Halvorson said, the co-op has been able to shed the “liberal elite” stereotype sometimes associated with co-ops, where everyday shoppers may feel they’re being sneered at by holier-than-thou foodies.
The co-op’s growth – coupled with the member-owners’ desire to invest in the future – has finally been manifested in a new building. During a recent visit just a few days before the scheduled ribbon cutting, the new store was abuzz with last-minute activity. Workers put finishing touches on paint, shelving, and wiring inside the cheerily painted store, which is bathed in natural light from four sides as well as from skylights. Halvorson noted that the new spaciousness will not only benefit shoppers but also will provide a better work environment for employees. And speaking of employees, the co-op will have more of them: The staff is growing from 30 a few weeks ago to about 56 in the near future.
The co-op will need the extra help to order, stock, and sell hundreds of additional products, including (for the first time) fresh meat and bulk water. Along with an expanded range of national brands, the co-op will work with more local producers and sell more locally grown and made food. Consider this: The co-op expects to sell so many more eggs that its supplier, Amanda’s Eggs of rural Chippewa Falls, has added 1,000 new free-range hens.
Changes at the co-op will go far beyond product lines. For the first time there will be a customer service desk. Patrons will also have a new place to eat. Compared with the eatery in the old store – a box-like space dubbed The Lunchbox – the deli in the new location is huge, with seating for 32 people inside, and it will serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The new deli is roughly the size of the entirety of the old store, Halvorson explained.
Among the most anticipated parts of the new store is a large second-floor education room. Encircled by large windows that provide a picturesque view of a leafy residential neighborhood, the room will provide a place for classes, cooking demonstrations, and other meetings that were impossible in the old store.
Halvorson credits support from members and the community for the co-op’s growth. A few years ago, the co-op sold $1 million worth of stock in six weeks. It also benefited from a $500,000 Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. grant, which came through the city of Menomonie, and will also soon receive funding via the federal New Market Tax Credit program.
And while member buy-in has been critical, Halvorson and others associated with the co-op emphasize that you don’t need to be a member of the co-op to shop there. In fact, the phrase “EVERYONE WELCOME” stands above the new store’s entrance.
The long wait for expansion was frustrating, but was ultimately beneficial. “Because we were so delayed in expansion,” Halvsorson said, “we were really able to do it right.” For example, even though the new retail space is 4.5 times larger than in the old store, the “back of the house” operations were build to accommodate even more retail space in the future, and the building was designed to make putting an addition on the front easy. “We’re really getting the building of our dreams,” she said.
What’s next? The co-op’s leadership is working on what it has dubbed – with an appropriately edible acronym –its “BLT,” i.e., a Big Long-Term strategy. These goals include exploring micro-lending, creating a food-processing kitchen, and providing leadership on raising wages in the community.
“We’re aren’t beholden to some home office,” Halvorson said of the role cooperative principles have played in the co-op’s success. “We can choose to spend more of the money we’re making (on the business).”
A ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Menomonie Market Food Co-op, 814 Main St. East, Menomonie, will be at 10:45am Wednesday, Aug. 19. Learn more about the co-op at www.mmfc.coop.