Grocery co-op expands with coalition of partners

by Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt For The Review

Although interest in co-ops that sell locally-grown food and products is increasing in Northeastern Wisconsin, the concept is an old and tested business model.

The first co-op was established in 1864 in the United Kingdom; in the United States, co-ops date back to the colonial times. Through the years, the interest has ebbed and flowed, but the seven principles adopted by the original pioneers continue to govern co-op operations.

Those principles include voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, cooperation among cooperatives, concern for the community, and education, training and information.

The primary purpose is to support local producers and sustainable agriculture and create a business based on member ownership and democratic decision making. It doesn’t mean the co-op isn’t concerned with making money; it simply isn’t the primary goal.

Nichole Kloss, manager of Goodside Grocery, an expanding co-op in Sheboygan, explained, “Our objective is not really to make money, but we do need to make money because we’re a business. The bottom line should be on the business and what we’re doing to foster healthy eating. I want what we do to be based in good intentions.”

As the first paid employee of the co-op that opened in May 2011, Kloss is anxious to help take the business to the next level. Last week was moving week as the store tripled its size and a grand opening was held Saturday. The event included entertainment and gave the community an opportunity to talk to some of the local producers and sample goods.

“It’s exciting,” Kloss said. “We are expanding different departments of the store to try to give a few really good options of each product in each department. We don’t want to have too many options — just enough so the consumer has some really solid choices.”

As the former owner of a coffee shop, she thinks that her past experience moved her in this direction. She studied food for the past five years and has been watching how her body can heal itself by eating the right foods. The co-op fosters healthy eating.

“It is whole food. We want to serve our community by offering clean food that is free of synthetic additives. Food that is food,” she added.

Kloss is impressed by the community’s support. There are about 300 active members who pay $35 a year for a membership that entitles them to a 10 percent discount. Volunteer members, those who work one shift a week, save 20 percent. Before Kloss, the co-op was run completely on volunteer power.

While the business model for a co-op tends to rely on community involvement and more personal interactions with suppliers and producers, Kloss says there are similarities. She thinks that strong relationships are a key to success for any business.

However, in contrast to her experience as a store owner where she made the decisions, a co-op is a consumer-owned, democratically run entity. Active members elect a board of directors who direct the operations of the business. That ownership model also affects fundraising.

An entrepreneur usually looks to a conventional lender for financing. Goodside Grocery turned to its members and the community to raise $30,000 via the crowdfunding site A matching grant came from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture “Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin” program that was designed to help farmers and food processors reach new local markets. Both Sheboygan County Economic Development Corporation and the Small Business Development Center at UW-Green Bay provided business plan development support. Goodside's expansion was, in part, funded by a forgivable loan through the city of Sheboygan's RDA.

Kloss, who has a passion for farming and local foods, hopes to educate the community on the health benefits of local food, and she’d like to see the demand spread beyond Sheboygan.

“Every community needs a food co-op,” she commented.

Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is coowner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin. If you are seeking to start business or purchase an existing business SCEDC provides entrepreneurial support. Phone SCEDC at 920-452-2350 or email them Schuessler@SheboyganCountyEDC. com.

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