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 Street 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.
Yet the early cooperators of the Viroqua Food Co-op were on to something big. They’d established a new food co-op during an era when there was zero support for it, and had done so by relying on each other to make it happen. Sally Colacino, the Co-op’s first employee (currently Purchasing Manager) said of their dreams, “I remember sitting on five-gallon buckets outside this awful empty building talking about what we wanted to see happen. We had no real expertise in those early days but we jumped in with both feet.” In the process, they created not only a successful storefront, but a strong cooperative community.
Typically, rural or small towns with a food co-op have other synergies that help drive their development, like a university or other major employer. Viroqua didn’t have those amenities, but the natural beauty of the area attracted a cadre of diverse people starting in the 1970s: Hmong immigrants, Amish from eastern states, and back-to-the-land types.
The latter group was instrumental in founding the farmer co-op Organic Valley in La Farge and the Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School in Viroqua. They were immersed in what were considered alternative ideas, which included organic agriculture and cooperative values. Additionally, the area has long had other established co-ops: agricultural, hardware and electrical. The area has a history steeped in cooperation. The co-ops and the alternative institutions that were founded then have played an important part in the development of the Viroqua Food Co-op.
Bill and Sara McDonald had moved to the area in 1990 and started a natural food buying club that grew to serve 30-40 families, many of them parents of Pleasant Ridge students. (See the Jan-Feb issue of Pea Soup) The McDonald’s started their North Farm buying club because the nearby food co-ops (Viola, La Crosse, Madison, Gays Mills) were all too far away to be convenient. Soon enough, though, the McDonald’s were victims of their own success, and the burden of running the buying club became too much. The idea of having a local food co-op storefront to meet people’s needs for natural food was appealing.
Sally Colacino and Sue Kastensen were the first paid employees, hired the day before opening. Colacino was also a transplant to the Viroqua area at the time (she moved here in 1986) and like many others thought a Viroqua-based food co-op was a good idea. In 1994, a group of people approached the Viola Co-op about relocating to Viroqua, which was the hub of so much alternative activity, but the Viola Co-op members voted it down.
For the people involved who supported the move, a Viroqua co-op could not happen fast enough. After the Viola Co-op relocation proposal failed, people were motivated to make the Viroqua Food Co-op a reality. According to Dave Ware, who began a 12-year Board stint in 1996, six as president, said, “The co-op was an idea whose time had come.”
Maybe it was also the heatwave of July and August in 1995 that made people impatient – 37 days above ninety degrees. Tom Jerde forced the Viroqua group into high gear when he found space for the Co-op to rent (without prior approval), and paid $600 down for two months’ rent. Louis and Suzanne Wilkins offered $10,000 as a matching grant to buy inventory and open the store. There was no market study or plan. Forty other families donated what they could – they didn’t meet the match – but what the heck. It was hasty and rash, but they were close enough, and with 95 members, 60 of them volunteers, the Co-op opened for business on Sept 2, 1995.
1996 looked a lot like 1976
Jan Rasikas had also moved to the area in 1996 and was a VFC Co-Manager before she became the VFC General Manager in 1999. She felt that the early days of the Viroqua Food Co-op were informed by nostalgia for a time gone by, “Even though it was 1996 it looked a lot like 1976.” Rasikas described its “one butt” aisle width, how unattended shopping carts would roll away on the uneven floor, or when children of volunteers would tumble into the piles of empty boxes to break them down. Homemade plywood shelves and little curtains covered back-stock. Didn’t every food co-op since 1963 have nag champa incense and beeswax candles? Viroqua Food Co-op certainly did, and still does!
Even though computers and email were in widespread use by then, the Viroqua Food Co-op wasn’t technologically plugged in. So many of the store’s fixtures were donated or built by community members, and everything it seemed, including the accounting and bookkeeping was done by hand. The VFC used a household-style checkbook and the receipts were literally kept in a shoebox. When the store was closed on Sundays, according to Colacino, “We used to leave a key in the mailbox and people could come in and write down what they took in an IOU book.”
It was such a shock to everyone when the Co-op got robbed by someone who had broken in via a window and stolen the Co-op’s safe in 2000 after the backroom expansion. The trust that had long been engendered and taken for granted had been violated. But that was a mere blip. The Co-op’s success as a draw for natural foods and the community connection it stimulated continued unabated. The store was crowded and chaotic at times. The first four years of operations Viroqua Food Co-op grew at 40% per year – an unheard of level of growth for virtually any business. Despite the “throwback” conditions of the business, it was thriving.
There was an expansion in that location that was finished in the summer of 1999. The Co-op expanded into the adjacent space to go from 700 square feet to 920 square feet retail, and added back room space. The Co-op borrowed $9,000 in expansion capital from Northcountry Cooperative Development Fund. People were so excited about the expansion that 500 people came to the expanded Co-op’s grand opening celebration.
Chris Cox was the Co-op’s first Treasurer, from 1995-97, and he took his role in financial oversight seriously. (Cox was also the first person to load the Co-op’s financial data in a computerized QuickBooks program later on.) His stewardship in this area also helped set the stage for the Co-op’s long-term success. “My primary concern for the Co-op was money and having enough,” he said.
Even though the Co-op had started on a shoestring budget, he believed that one of the keys to cooperative success was strong cash flow. He also said that it could be an area of tension because “there were challenges in towing the line between profits and doing good.” He thinks Viroqua Food Co-op, throughout its history, has made important decisions balancing the ideals of the Cooperative with the business needs for profitability that have kept it in good stead on behalf of its owners.
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. For example, Dave Ware was a Board member as well as the go-to maintenance person. He built shelves, put up walls, and hung sheetrock. When the sewer backed up he was the one working on it. As Sally Colacino said it, “People gave a lot to have this Co-op be here.”
“It was a happy miracle we survived all that,” Rasikas said about the first location, “But the soul of all the good work we wanted to do still shines through today.”
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. A majority of owners agreed this was an important move to support, nonetheless, it caused some debate at the time regarding accessibility and affordability.
Cecil Wright, who was on the board from 1999-2005, helped provide instrumental leadership during a time of such change within the Co-op. A former Director of Operations at Organic Valley and current CEO of Maple Valley Syrup Co-op, he knew that the Co-op had enormous potential to expand the commercial impact of local and organic agriculture for farmers and consumers through cooperative economics.
“The Co-op is an economic driver for the area,” Wright said, and he thought it was time for a new, broader vision. This vision for the Co-op was far-reaching, one in which he believed the Co-op could achieve even more than most people had thought possible.
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 the feasibility of the Peterson Motors building, now the Main Street Station, and the Whey Plant site at Broadway and Main Street for expansion in 2003. They ended up negotiating with the City of Viroqua for the Whey Plant site.
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. Doubly blessed.
As the Co-op grew, it also experienced growing pains. Naturally there was some nostalgia for the intimacy of the past. Additionally, some people worried about what the “hippies behind the hardware store” were going to do on Main Street. Dave Ware noted, “Some people felt the Co-op was overstretching its size.”
Welcoming more people and overcoming an outdated image was a challenge Board President Ware addressed in a 2004 newsletter. “Intimacy and connectedness occurs when people’s eyes meet and they share some news, have a brief debate, learn a little bit more about each other. That can happen in a larger store as easily (maybe even more easily, since it won’t have as much of the crowded fishbowl feeling) as in our tiny old co-op.”
As the Co-op stepped into its larger role in the community, it foreshadowed another ten years of even more cultural and economic shifts that have had a far-reaching impact.
The next installment of the 20-year history of the Viroqua Food Co-op will appear in the July/August issue of the Pea Soup.
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.