The 2014 CCMA Conference is hosted by Willy Street Co-op from June 12 – 14.
Get excited about Madison – read what WIlly Street members read – The Reader, on line issues dating back to 2007! And for your reading please – the “bio” of Willy Street Co-op. Enjoy!
Like 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 and opened a retail store at 1014 Williamson Street in 1974. 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.
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.
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.
In 1998 the Co-op purchased and extensively remodeled the Eagles Club at 1221 Williamson Street. What 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.
The Co-op now has over 30,000 Owners. The number of employees has grown to around 310 (more than half are full-time) and annual sales are over $41 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.