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'Not just for hippies anymore'

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

When Patti Wente switched careers to become manager of the Pomme de Terre Food Co-op, she knew the best preparation would be to remember what made her successful in her previous jobs.

"I have a lot of interests," said Wente, who stepped into her new job Aug. 1. "I've applied for jobs with more than one resume. It's always about people. I like to do things to benefit people."

Before assuming her new role, Wente spent six years as the Director of Childrens' Ministry at the Morris Evangelical Free Church. Before that, she was a Stevens County Social Worker for nine years.

Wente and her husband, Chris, are the parents of five children, including two who came to their family as foster kids. She had plenty of experience dealing with a full house, being the youngest of 11 children of Violet and the late Leonard Wulf.

Throughout her school years at Morris Area High School and the University of Minnesota, Morris, Wente knew helping children and people were her passions. She found two jobs that fit with it.

Now, she's got another. A woman on a tight budget was in the co-op the other day, going through her shopping list with Wente to decide what she should buy there and what she might need to find elsewhere.

"I like helping people, and we have a lot of elderly and college students who shop here," Wente said. "It's a slower pace here than larger stores and that allows you to really help people. You always take the things you've learned with you, no matter what you do."

The co-op is a non-profit business run by volunteers. Since she took the job, Wente has trained in six new volunteers.

"When I interviewed, I told them I had strong leadership and people skills, and that in both jobs I had worked with volunteers," Wente said.

Her goal now is to spread the word about what the Food Co-op is and what it isn't. This starts with new t-shirts that carry the slogan "Not just for hippies anymore." The co-op was founded in 1975, and Wente said people still wonder if they can shop there without being co-op members. Members and volunteers are afforded discounts, however.

"I think places like this battle stereotypes," Wente said. "People think they have to be members to shop here -- you don't."

The co-op also isn't strictly a health food store. Many of the options are well-suited for shoppers looking for healthy alternatives, like gluten- and dairy-free products, "but we have chocolate," Wente said with a laugh.

"We have specialty foods, bulk foods and local foods," Wente said. "We're trying to promote less packaging, buying fresh and supporting local farmers."

The Food Co-op is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, and noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays.

Co-op members get 5 percent discounts on purchases, and seniors and students get discounts on memberships. Volunteers can earn discounts up to 20 percent on purchases for volunteering at least eight hours per month.

And Wente enjoys the idea of visits to the co-op being as much about socializing as it is about buying groceries.

"I want it to be a family friendly store," said Wente, who added that some members of her family have helped unload trucks and stock shelves. "People take their time when they shop here -- you can stop and talk. It's very fun, and I like getting to meet new people."