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Idea for a community-owned grocery store gathers momentum

MaryAnn Friederich of Collegeville Artisan Bakery in St. Joseph sorts the wares at her booth June 4 during the first Becker Market of the year. Vendors at the outdoor market are pushing to establish a community-owned grocery store featuring locally produced food. They say it would provide a year-round outlet for their products. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Interest is sprouting in establishing a community-owned grocery store featuring locally produced food and possibly food delivery, food demonstrations and maybe even a local-foods restaurant.

Citizens exploring the concept say such a store would be a 21st century upgrade of a traditional food cooperative and provide a pleasing atmosphere and customer service, such as found at a Whole Foods store.

The idea grows out of a desire by Becker Market vendors for a year-round outlet for their products, says Beverly Dougherty, project coordinator for the Willmar Design Center, which sponsors the summertime weekly market on downtown Becker Avenue.

The store idea has become a priority for the Design Center and for the Business Expansion and Retention Committee of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

"The idea is that we could create a model that could be used by more than one town,'' says Dougherty.

Citizens interested in the concept say the next steps will be approaching the board of directors of Kandi Cupboard, a small, longtime food cooperative, for its interest in participation, conducting a market survey and holding a community meeting early next year to gauge local support.

About a dozen people interested in the concept talked for about 90 minutes via telephone this week at the EDC office with Stuart Reid, a development specialist in southern Minnesota with Food Co-op 500 Program, a support system for developing new retail grocery cooperatives.

Food co-ops receive financial support from members, grants, loans and community investment. Reid said people in some cities join food co-ops for reasons other than their desire to patronize it.

"Maybe 10 to 20 percent of the members will very rarely patronize it,'' he said. "But 40 percent of the people that do patronize the co-op are not members. They won't join, but they will take advantage of those services.''

Reid said a food co-op must meet community needs. Products need not always be natural or organic. But he said most co-ops tend to emphasize natural and organic foods and support local producers.

Reid said grocery stores are incredibly competitive.

"For Willmar, if you have a store that isn't quite meeting what you hope it would meet in terms of community needs, think of it as a new store project. Bring in investment from the present members and community investment that might be available,'' he said.

Reid suggested a store needs at least 4,000 square feet of retail space and should have good representation of products in all major grocery departments, such as dairy and produce. He said sustaining a store with less than 3,000 square feet would be difficult.

Reid said Northfield, population about 17,000, started a 4,000-square-foot cooperative store five years ago and does about $4 million in business per year.

He said stores in smaller cities face a number of problems, such as complying with food distributors' minimum requirements.

"The economic barriers that exist are not eliminated by going to a co-op,'' he said. "The potential for a community to support a local business is higher with a co-op because people become individual investors.''

He said many co-ops host farmers markets. He said such cooperation builds interest and demand for local products, supports the local economy and works well for both parties.

Also, he said most new co-ops sell prepared foods, which is a marketplace trend.

"If they get healthier ready-to-eat foods, they will opt for it if it's available,'' he said.

Reid said co-ops can compete against larger grocery chains. He said the Twin Cities market has one of the highest concentrations of retail food co-ops in the country and some of the most sophisticated grocery retailers.

"But we still are succeeding as food co-ops above and beyond almost anywhere else. The answer is they are responsive to their owner-members, the people that shop there, provide a shopping environment that is much more comfortable, more fun and more knowledge-based, and people trust that the co-op is there to meet their needs, not to meet the corporate investors' needs,'' he said.

"I know people that go into food co-ops for the first time and they leave somewhat amazed that this is such a personal experience, not so big they get lost in the aisles.''