Food Co-op Initiative Assistant Director Jacqueline Hannah leads an interactive activity to generate ideas for the vision of the Whitewater Grocery Co. during its first meeting on Oct. 28. (Tom Ganser photo)

 

By Tom Ganser

Correspondent

History was made with the convening of the first annual meeting of the Whitewater Grocery Co., which has members in Palmyra, at 841 Brew House.

Approximately 250 people, most of whom have signed on as owners, were provided with reports about the work of the Steering Committee to date, at the Oct. 28 meeting. They also had the opportunity to participate in an activity aimed at generating ideas about the vision of Whitewater Grocery Co., and the results of the election of the first board of directors.

As stated on the Whitewater Grocery Co. website at, “Whitewater Grocery Co. is a grassroots movement established to develop, build, and maintain a thriving food scene in Whitewater, Wisconsin. Central to this scene is a full-service grocery store which meets the needs of the community. This community owned market will promote and offer local foods, natural choices, and gourmet options. The goal of the market will be to nourish and educate the community.”

Lacey Reichwald, Chair of the Steering Committee that ceased to exist after the election of the board of directors, cited as a “notable milestone” in the history of the WGC initiative a $10,000 grant from the Community Development Authority of Whitewater applied to the legal fee involved in incorporating WGC and taking on its first owners.

With the goal of signing on 100 owners during the first month and 200 owners during the first six months, Reichwald reported that there were 58 owners by the first night of incorporation on May 5. She also said there were 100 in four days, and 276 owners at the start of the annual meeting, less than six months later.

During this past summer, Whitewater Grocery Co. received another $10,000 grant from the Food Coop Initiative, through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant program that will be used, in part, for a market study.

“We have officially moved from the organizing stage … with our first feasibility study currently taking place,” Reichwald said. “As we continue to grow our ownership, we’ll continue to move through the feasibility stage which will include a business plan; a proforma, which is a financial feasibility study and an additional market study. All of that data will help us determine key features like location, store size, what to sell, and who to partner with.”

Brienne Diebolt-Brown presented a report of the Ownership and Outreach Task Group.

“For a lot of people here who have already tried to reach out to friends or neighbors, you don’t need to make that big, closing sale,” Diebolt-Brown said, noting that a formal membership drive has not been done yet. “What you need to do is just keep talking to people and say, ‘I’m an owner. This is why I love the co-op. See my sign. Here’s my shirt.’

“What you have to do as an owner, is be excited about the Co-op, be excited about wanting to have a grocery store in town, and wanting to just let people know about it as much as you can.”

She said that people from Palmyra, Fort Atkinson and Delavan “who are really excited about this, too” were present at the meeting.

“We’re still in the early stages,” Steering Committee treasurer Jennifer Crone said. “What we need to spend money on at this stage of the process is really different than what we’ll be spending money on when we’re at 500 members, when we’re at 700 members, and down the road.”

She described current expenses in three categories, with the first being marketing, membership and outreach.

“It’s really all about getting the word out, getting people excited and interested, getting people signed up as members, and building that support,” Crone said. “This will continue to be an ongoing expense throughout the entire process of developing the grocery store.”

The second was the preliminary market study, which will cost $3,500 and lead to “some preliminary recommendations of the direction we might want to consider for our grocery store.”

The third was general business expenses, including

software, credit card fees, legal fees and incorporation fees.

Crone presented a draft 12-month budget for the new board of directors.

“(You) might wonder why our budget doesn’t include things that you might think of at first for building a grocery store, like there’s nothing on this budget for rent or building a building or buying equipment or paying staff,” Crone said. “Those things will come in good time as we move through the process, and at this stage, they’re not supposed to be part of our budget yet.”

Anne Hartwick offered background to the drafting of bylaws adopted on May 5 that included ideas from successful co-ops inside and outside Wisconsin, which were reviewed by an attorney. She said bylaws are important to an operation like this.

“They are part of the way a co-op is governed. Co-ops, by law, identify the basic rights and responsibilities for both member owners and for board members. They provide general rules for the governance of the co-op … In the by-laws, the members define how they will make certain decisions together and how they will empower a board to make decisions on their behalf,” Hartwick said. “Bylaws allow for smooth functioning of the co-op’s internal governance processes, while being consistent with both our owner values and relevant laws. Effective bylaws create the foundation for transparent, fair and efficient governance process.”

Hartwick said that the bylaws will most likely change at some point just like the budget as Whitewater Grocery Co. moves through different stages of development.

Following the reports, Food Co-op Initiative Assistant Director Jacqueline Hannah led an interactive activity to generate suggestions for articulating the vision for the Whitewater Grocery Co. based on values and mission as it moves forward.

There are currently about 300 co-ops in operation across the US, with another 130 in the development stage. Hannah said after emerging in the 1940s and growing significantly in the 1970s, there has been a new wave of interest in co-ops over the past 10 years.

“We don’t know of another rural food co-op (like Whitewater) that came up with almost 250 owners in six months. I don’t think there’s another one in the nation,” Hannah said. “You guys are on par with Chicago in your growth rate. You should really be excited about that.

“What’s different about a co-op is that a co-op is a business run for community profit. (It’s) not a non-profit, not a regular corporation for profit. You have to take the money, if you make a profit, reinvest it in the business as the owners decide they want it done or pay it out equally to all the owners.”

At the start of the activity, the audience listed on a paper plate up to six ideas for what they “want from a food co-op” in terms of mission or the vision of the “shopping experience” with what the store will be like, what it offers and other ideas, followed by a discussion at the tables.

Hannah then gathered prominent ideas from each table, sorting them into “mission” and “vision” statements, and followed this by giving audience members the opportunity to select their top three choices for statements generated by the entire group.

Hannah announced the four most highly rated mission statements, including “farm to table, in supporting local farms,” “local jobs for local people,” “environmental sustainability” and be “a place to go to build relationships in the community and to gather.”

The most highly rated statements for a vision of the shopping experience were “local and organic food” “affordable and accessible.”

Hannah also said it often takes 5 to 7 years to open a food co-op, comparable to the years taken in planning the opening of a commercial grocery store, but that three years is the generally the fastest time to start a co-op.

“You’re organizing well,” Hannah said. “You’re organizing around community vision. You’re organizing transparently. You’re being business savvy. You’re smart. You not going to pick a location just because someone has a random building at the end of town.”

Following the activity, the newly elected board of directors was announced, with their terms of office being randomly determined a little later.

The directors are Joanna Marr Baker (three years), Crone (two years), Diebolt-Brown (one year), Hartwick (three years), Greg Majkrzak (one year), Reichwald (two years) and Al Stanek (three years).

In response to questions from the audience, Reichwald described the current market study, indicated that the general public can shop at the WGC and not just owner/members, that the board will discuss possible membership alternatives for University of Wisconsin-Whitewater students and that the board will also be investigating ways that local banks, realtors, developers, property owners and the university might be able to support the Whitewater Grocery Co.

The Whitewater Grocery Co. has a presence online at whitewatergrocery.co.

 

 
 

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