MILWAUKEE – Perhaps the slight uptick in temperature was just what the doctor ordered for the Riverwest Co-Op, located in the Milwaukee neighborhood of the same name.
Dozens filled the Falcon Bowl auditorium across the street Wednesday night, for a planned members and volunteers meeting with the co-op board to discuss adjustments to store hours and staff hours as the store faces potential closure linked to a capitol loan application denial last month.
The moves follow the guidance of consulting firm Columinate, which conducted a feasibility study to determine the co-op’s eligibility for the loan. Columinate offered no comment when I asked for any specific reason the loan application was denied. While ultimately not awarded the loan, the co-op did receive guidance from Columinate on ways to improve their day-to-day operations to achieve long-term success.
“You have a wonderful Co-op and a fantastic community of staff and volunteers that care deeply about it” said Wynston Estis with Columinate’s co-op retail support staff in a letter concerning the feasibility study to the co-op last year. “I’m hopeful that you can achieve the improvement I’ve recommended here so that you are able to reinvest in your facility.”
Some of Estis’s suggestions included converting the co-op’s policy of markup pricing to a margin-based application, offering fresh meat and alcoholic products, and improving the clarity of staff and volunteer responsibilities. At the membership meeting Wednesday, the board said that the move to a margin system has been a positive experience so far, and hinted that meat offerings could be considered in the future depending on the response from members. However, alcohol sales are not being considered due to licensing and security concerns.
The board also noted that due to the co-op’s recent string of pop-up events, November cafe sales were up 64% year-over-year. That follows numbers in the Columinate feasibility study that indicated operational losses had declined from 122,326 dollars in fiscal year 2020 to 35,476 dollars in the first half of 2023. It also cited the success of their recent GoFundMe campaign, which at the time of this article had raised 32,147 dollars of its 50,000 dollar goal by the end of the year to assist in daily operations. Going forward, the co-op plans to explore opportunities for grants from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation.
Transparency and Honesty
Despite the financial troubles the co-op faces, there was a sense of general optimism by both the board and the gathered members Wednesday.
“We are seeing the benefit of our pricing strategy change” co-op board president Debbie Powers told me. “We’re getting more people in the door from all of the buzz from the attention we’ve gotten. We’ve got a lot of community support, not just from our members but also from the greater community that want to see a small-scale community food co-op survive and exist in Milwaukee.”
Powers said their member base has stayed fairly consistent since the pandemic even as volunteer numbers declined; the co-op currently has over 6,500 members who pay either 20 dollars a year or 120 dollars for a lifetime membership that includes a 5% in-store discount on produce. Additionally, the co-op has the option for customers on food stamps to receive a sponsored membership.
Additionally, Powers said during this most recent period of uncertainty, their policy of transparency and honesty with their customer base has served as an example for other organizations. “It’s been really encouraging to see when we’re being honest about the position we’re in, we see how much the community wants to make sure that we’re still here.”
“Every single dollar counts”
In 2021, there were 40 co-op grocery stores operating across Wisconsin, though some have closed their doors since then due to similar financial difficulties. One of those co-ops is Goodside Grocery in Sheboygan, which closed its doors last September after citing the impact of trends towards fast food delivery and competition from bigger grocery companies.
“For us, we were never big enough to have a lot of options.” said Kate Krause, former president of the board at Goodside and current owner of Paradigm Coffee where Goodside started out of a back corner in 2011 before acquiring its own storefront in 2015. “We felt the nationwide dip in grocery store sales right after the pandemic [when] everyone went back to eating out and weren’t buying groceries quite as frequently. What we failed at was convincing our community that co-ops are important.”
Krause says when it comes to the lessons the Goodside team learned from the co-op’s closure, word of mouth is the best way to give co-op’s a fighting chance.
“Every single dollar counts in small business. Support the places that you want to see exist in your community…tell your friends that they exist, even a couple bucks a week will go a long way.”
Author’s Note: WTMJ’s Adam Roberts is a volunteer with the Riverwest Co-op.
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