The History of the Viroqua Food Cooperative
The Viroqua Food Co-op first opened its doors as a retail shop in a former egg store behind the Nelson’s Agri Center at 303 Center Avenue on a fine day in early September, 1995. The Co-op had cobbled together funds from a few people in the community, and others built shelving and solicited equipment donations, to open the tiny 700 square foot store. It was charming and homemade with a hippie vibe. It was also cramped. Unsophisticated. The opening didn’t portend the runaway success that the Co-op would become.
Those first five years are especially remarkable for the can-do attitude of the Co-op’s members and supporters. People wore many hats and shared a myriad of skills in order to create a foundation of leadership and strength. Despite the limited space and out-of the-way location, the little Co-op began to grow and thrive. In 1999, VFC expanded the retail space to 920 square feet and added backroom space.
One of the issues the 1999 expansion pointed out was the need for member capital to help finance the Co-op. In 2001, membership in Viroqua Food Co-op changed from an $18 per year fee to $75 in individual owner equity. It was important for Owners to invest in their own business, as that would put the Co-op on a path to long-term stability.
In 2002, the Long Range Planning Committee released results of a survey that said 78% of respondents wanted a bigger store. The Co-op investigated several sites and ended up negotiating with the City of Viroqua for the Whey Plant site on Main Street.
The Co-op’s 2004 capital campaign included investments from preferred shares, Class C Series I (with a minimum investment starting at $500 each) and approximately $500,000 of the $1.6 million needed for the expansion and relocation was raised through C Share owner investments. Like the initial startup days, people rallied to the Co-op to support this new phase in its development. In 2005, Viroqua Food Co-op celebrated both its 10 year anniversary and the grand opening of its new 4,400 square foot retail store.
In 2005, the Viroqua Food Co-op moved from its tiny, funky digs behind Nelson’s Agri-Center into a brand new 4,400 square foot retail at 609 North Main Street. It was a gorgeous facility, vibrant with color and fresh food. Pride was evident in the way people talked about the Co-op. It was not only a grocery store, but a community gathering place. There was finally a place to sit and meet your neighbors.
More than 100 new owners joined the first three days the store opened. In the year following the move the Co-op went from 15 employees to 50. Membership increased to 1,700 and sales grew to $2.6 million. By the end of the second year in the new store, ownership had grown to over 2,000 and sales were $3.1 million.
In 2011, VFC added a new parking lot off of Center Avenue that doubled the amount of parking space. The Co-op’s growth began to push the physical limits of the site and structure of the building. In the winter of 2013-14, a back room expansion provided the additional room needed to keep the store stocked with product. Additional office space was needed for staff members, so as apartments across Center Avenue became available, seven employees moved their offices to the offsite location.
In 2012, VFC embarked on an extensive planning and evaluation process to address the needs for growth. The Board of Directors used the same process to engage owners as they did in 2002 – starting with a Community Conversation followed by several years of study, a market study, an owner survey, and many in-person events to gather owner input.
Construction began the summer of 2017 and was completed in late 2018. VFC's retail square feet doubled and stayed open while new walls were literally being built around the existing building.
The new store features: a significantly larger deli; a bakery with made-from-scratch baked goods and a greater selection of wheat-free goods; a meat department with room for meat processing along with a greater selection of meat and seafood. A larger produce area has a direct link to supporting our local farmers and food producers. A new community room gives us opportunities to share information on health and nutrition.
The impact the VFC and its customers’ buying preferences have had on local food movement is evident over the Co-op's history: it continues to create a common wealth, and is rooted in the values of cooperation all while being nurtured on the land.
The Co-op remains committed to values of creating access to local and sustainable foods, and a flourishing local and cooperative economy. VFC now has over 4,000 owners, with sales of over $7 million dollars for fiscal year 2017-18. Sales from local farmers and food producers were at 32%; 46% of all sales were certified organic.
That old shack and hippie hangout of 1995 did more good than anyone ever thought possible. Now there are more choices for consumers. A stronger local and cooperative economy. Development of sustainable regional agricultural systems. People and organizations working together to benefit the community. All that and more, just because some people got things rolling in an old egg store.