Willy St. Co-op
Number of members: 14,500
Equity investment:$56 individual, $91 household
Number of staff: 137
Retail square feet:9,500
Willy St. Co-op is located in right in Madison’s urban core, but a 20-minute drive out of the city gets you into the heart of Wisconsin’s farm country. The co-op is an enthusiastic supporter of the area’s producers, and more than that, is taking an active role in shaping the development of strong local food systems.
Five years ago, the food co-op was instrumental in creating the Eastside Farmers’ Market. The Tuesday market picked up overflow from the Saturday Dane County Farmers’ Market (which has a five-year waiting list for vendors) and has provided another sales outlet for around 25 local producers. In addition, the Eastside Farmers’ Market has been integral in the revitalization of a neglected section of the neighborhood when the co-op put its resources into remediating derelict and abandoned land for it. This has proven to be a strategic decision that has put the co-op in an enviable position regarding upcoming community development projects.
Lynn Olson, cooperative service manager at Willy St. Co-op and coordinator of the farmers’ market, said the co-op’s board wanted management to pursue it because, “They want to link members of our community directly with food sources, and give farmers an opportunity to link with consumers.” Currently, the market draws 75 percent of its patrons from the immediate area, and a total 600 people a day. “People want more connection, to their food, and to the community,” Olson said about the market’s popularity.
At first, there was some concern that the farmers market might draw sales away from the food co-op. “It’s actually made our Tuesday sales go up because people are coming in and buying other ingredients,” Olson said.
As much as the Eastside Farmers Market has raised the co-op’s profile locally, strong and cohesive marketing efforts in partnership with the farmers’ market and the co-op’s produce department enhance the endeavor’s success. Good marketing communications in the form of classes, cookbooks, PR, advertising, newsletter and website profiles, get the word out and helps build those important links with producers and consumers.
Olsen thinks that part and parcel of the success the co-op has enjoyed regarding their local food activities has to do with the ideals of cooperation. She believes building a sustainable local food system is about trust. “Co-op principles direct us to be transparent; other businesses don’t have to do that.” She noted some corporate players have lied to consumers or omitted the truth in their dealings with producers and consumers. “We’re not just about selling product, but educating the public at large,” she said.
As the market goes in to its fifth year, Olson’s able to step back and see how much of an impact it’s had. The market has acted as an incubator for new vendors for the co-op, and helped grow others. Meanwhile, people come to the market in droves, enjoying the pace and one-on-one time with farmers.
As Madison looks at creating a major new Central Park Corridor in the area, the Eastside Farmers’ Market and the co-op are being given top consideration. “We’re in an enviable position,” Olson said. “This could build other opportunities for the co-op.”