The anticipation was finally over. In 2005, the Viroqua Food Co-op had 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.
Nearly everything had changed overnight. The new building gave the Co-op newfound presence and legitimacy in the community, and in the span of one year the Co-op doubled its sales and ownership. General Manager Jan Rasikas noted that the demands of this remarkable popularity meant that to meet the needs of a whole new group of people the Co-op also had to institute systems behind the scenes. Both staff and Board had to adjust to new roles and responsibilities, and create infrastructure to accommodate the growth.
Change, even when it is welcome, involves a learning curve and sometimes stress. A massive uptick in sales volume meant staff had to figure out, and quickly, new technologies to track the flow of goods in numerous departments. The deli, which hadn’t existed before, had to acquire food service expertise and deliver dishes that would be well-liked by customers. The need for customer service and education grew exponentially. More staff meant more systems to support their work. Doing all of that successfully required a significant commitment from everyone involved. It was all hands on deck.
Jackie Rebman, VFC’s Customer Service Manager, started at the Co-op in 2005, six weeks before the move. Hired as a cashier, she became the Customer Service Manager after a year. Along with Staff Services Manager Alycann Taylor, who started in 2007, they focused their energies on training and internal support services for staff. That’s one significant reason why employees are so friendly and helpful at the Co-op. Due to management and staff efforts, a strong work culture developed at VFC, one based on mutual respect and collaboration, rewarded by good wages and benefits.
Customer service is the number-one priority at VFC, and over the years Rebman and Taylor’s roles have morphed into designing programs that bring out the best in staff to serve and educate customers. “I’m proud to say that’s part of our legacy at Viroqua Food Co-op, that wonderful warm feeling and compassionate environment that everyone is drawn to,” Rebman said. “We always keep the human factor in mind as part of our interactions.”
Additionally, in 2006, the Board adopted policy governance, a system by which the Board interprets the values of the owners, defines policies based on those values, and monitors how those policies are being accomplished. It was a significant undertaking to transition from being a hands-on volunteer Board to big-picture advocates for the Co-op.
In the post-expansion years, it seemed everything was dialed up and carried out with a sense of urgency and earnestness. Getting things done required new ways to keep up with demand, and truthfully, that was difficult. In 2008 the recession hit, adding another layer of external challenge (yet the Co-op sustained double-digit sales growth).
Nonetheless, the Co-op also held itself to an exceptionally high standard: carry out the Co-op’s mission with joy and good faith. Dave Ware, the Co-op’s Board President at the time, said, “As we grew as a Co-op we learned to fit into the larger food co-op movement in the U.S.” By 2009, Co-op leadership caught up to the learning curve and VFC made its first post-expansion profit. The dust had settled. Somewhat.
Local Food Revolution
As the Cooperative was adjusting its operations and governance, it was also building the foundation for the “local” food revolution that is still a groundswell movement in the United States. Viroqua Food Co-op’s leadership in this arena contributed to the creation of local agricultural food systems in southwestern Wisconsin and put the VFC in the national spotlight.
Dani Lind started working at the Co-op as a produce stocker in 2000, and was the Co-op’s Produce Department Manager from 2001-2011. She is currently the proprietor of Rooted Spoon Culinary in Viroqua. During her tenure at the Co-op, she was instrumental in the local food movement gaining momentum, especially in the realm of promoting local agriculture.
Lind’s efforts on behalf of local farmers not only grew the Co-op’s fresh produce sales, but had influential reverberations that reached the Twin Cities and other regional markets. As Lind described it, she got “nerdy” about vegetables, and was very motivated to “work with farmers about how to meet the needs of the co-op customer.” She worked closely with dozens of producers to help them get established in the business and sell successfully to a retail store.
Mat and Cate Eddy of the certified organic 70-acre Ridgeland Harvest farm (12 miles outside of Viroqua) gave Lind and the Co-op a lot of credit for their success. They had started Ridgeland in 2000, and Mat said they grew “bunches of radishes here and there” and maybe 25 pounds of carrots a week the first year they sold to the Co-op in 2001. It was part of the yield from one acre.
“Dani had a great system for planning and working with all the farms to give them fair access,” Eddy said. “It was the key thing the Co-op did. They put a system in place where everyone could grow and be successful.” Ridgeland Harvest grew from one acre of produce the first year, to cultivate three the next, and five acres after that. Lind also suggested Ridgeland establish root crops which would give Mat and Cate more income during the winter months, too. It’s that kind of intense interest in their business well-being that the Co-op’s competitors just did not do.
When Viroqua Food Co-op expanded in 2005, “sales really took off” Eddy said, and by 2008 things had “scaled up” for Ridgeland Harvest. Mat and Cate were able to quit their day jobs and farm full time. “We had very lean years there, literally no money. Now things are doing pretty good,” Eddy said. During the growing season, Ridgeland now sells 600 pounds to the Co-op each week of the best and sweetest carrots ever!
The Co-op’s efforts also reached beyond their retail work with farmers. Dani Lind and Jan Rasikas both worked on other local agricultural initiatives. Lind collaborated with the Valley Stewardship Network Farm and Food Initiative to launch Kickapoo Harvest: Gleaning for Healthy Communities (2009) to provide food to the hungry and find a use for B-grade organic produce. Rasikas was involved in establishing the Fifth Season Cooperative (2009), a regional food broker of local and organic producers that sells their products for use in schools and hospitals.
Because of their efforts and the Co-op’s many regional partners (Vernon Economic Development Association, Organic Valley, Valley Stewardship Network, Food and Farm Initiative, Buy Local Wisconsin), the area gained a national reputation as maintaining a strong regional food system. In 2012, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan (pictured with Jan Rasikas) visited the Viroqua area to study the developing local food economy.
As many VFC owners and shoppers understand, knowing where your food comes from and who is producing it is not a fad. In 2012, the Co-op launched P6, which stands for the sixth co-op principle: Cooperation Among Cooperatives. The Principle Six: A Co-operative Trade Movement program allows owners and shoppers to make informed, educated decisions about how their food dollars are spent, and to increase market access for products that are produced by local, cooperatives, or small producers. Last year, 36% of the Co-op’s sales were made up of P6 products.
Owners Decide the Future
In 2010, the Co-op celebrated its 15th anniversary with the community by hosting a big party in the parking lot. Over 1,300 community members came and people lined up around the block for the food. “It was pretty wild,” said Jan Rasikas, “We had planned for 800 and we really scrambled to feed everyone.” The VFC’s power to bring people together flourished unabated.
Curt Brye has been on the VFC Board of Directors since 2005. He served as Treasurer for four of those years and as Board President since 2012. Brye said the Board started thinking about next steps for the Co-op in 2012, and put the question to owners at a Community Conversation and visioning session. The Board also held other listening sessions, Coffee with the Board meetings, and hosted an Occupy the Co-op event.
They learned that owners want more of what the Co-op does well: access to natural food and continued expansion of the mission. They also want new services, like more food service and catering, full-service meat and seafood, educational classes, a juice bar, and beer and wine for the seating area.
The Co-op also commissioned a market study and Brye said, “We found people from almost every state had stopped at the Co-op. It was eye-opening how many people are traveling through.” The Viroqua Food Co-op had not only done well in its own town, but had become a national destination-location.
Robynn Shrader, the CEO of the National Co+op Grocers, a service cooperative providing guidance and systems assistance to the food co-op sector, noted that VFC leadership has made a “significant contribution” to cooperation, and she confidently predicted “there’s a lot more to come.”
Once again the Co-op is preparing to commemorate another milestone birthday this year – 20 years – and there is truly much to celebrate. 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.
The impact the VFC and its customers’ buying preferences have had on local food movement is evident over the last decade: it continues to create a common wealth, and is rooted in the values of cooperation all while being nurtured on the land.
“We’re entering into a new chapter,” Brye said as the Co-op is currently exploring expansion opportunities. Brye said any plans for the future must build on the accomplishments of the last 20 years to honor the efforts of the past.
Patricia Cumbie is a writer and consultant for food co-ops. She is the author of numerous books and co-op handbooks, including Growing With Purpose: Forty Years of Seward Community Cooperative.