Management of Willy Street Co-op’s flagship store on Madison’s near east side hopes adding alcohol to its shelves will boost sales, but not everyone in the neighborhood is sold on the idea.
The co-op would like to sell beer, wine and cider at its 1221 Williamson St. store and has received approval from the city’s Alcohol License Review Committee. Its application is expected to be reviewed by the City Council Oct. 31.
Ald. Marsha Rummel, District 6, who represents the neighborhood where the co-op is located, is in support of granting the license.
"I have no doubt that the co-op would be a very good operator if the license is granted," Rummel said in a letter to the ALRC. "It is an important and beloved neighborhood business who is an active community partner faced with increasing competition."
Overall sales at the store have been “stagnant if not slightly declining,” according to a business application submitted to the city, and the co-op hopes offering alcohol will bolster those numbers.
Willy Street Co-op East used to be the only grocery store serving the neighborhood, with small markets like Capitol Centre Market and Jenifer Street Market its closest competitors. However, the addition of a full-service Festival Foods on East Washington Avenue has drawn some business away, co-op spokesman Brendon Smith said.
“With Festival Foods open and offering some one-stop shopping for people who wish to get beer or wine or cider with their groceries, we’re seeing a little decrease in business,” Smith said.
The store estimates the sale of alcohol would mean an additional $400,000 to $600,000 in annual sales, which include products shoppers often buy when they purchase alcohol.
On average, beer and wine sales at the co-op’s west and north side locations contribute between 10 and 13 percent in sales. Sales projections for the east location are estimated to be 6 to 8 percent, lower than other stores due to space constraints.
Willy Street Co-op East held a liquor license in the mid-1990s but discontinued selling alcohol to make more room for dairy products. Owners have consistently requested beer and wine in an annual survey, general manager Anya Firszt said at the Oct. 18 ALRC meeting.
The co-op’s ability to manage an alcohol license has not been contested. Instead, some neighbors are concerned with the density of establishments selling alcohol in the area and competition for other small businesses.
A few doors down, at 1209 Williamson Street, Star Liquor is also feeling the effects of the corporate Festival Foods moving in less than a mile away. General manager Adam Casey said he is not thrilled about the co-op’s proposal and the potential effects on sales at Star.
“You get your neighbor in direct competition, and it’s concerning,” Casey said. “It’s definitely something that will affect us negatively.”
Smith said the co-op has pointed its customers to Star Liquor when they ask about beer and wine and it has partnered with the store on events. He said the co-op isn’t looking to compete and that the grocery store will have a smaller selection than Star.
“We definitely want Star to remain strong like any other neighborhood business, but we also want ourselves to remain strong,” Smith said.
The Marquette Neighborhood Association's board voted 6-4 not to support the co-op’s license, which president Lynn Lee said reflected the divided thinking among neighbors. Lee said there’s a sense of concern in the neighborhood that there are too many places that sell alcohol.
Long time co-op member and neighbor Carl Landsness said at the ALRC meeting his concerns extend beyond the co-op’s license management to “culture and values.”
He described the co-op as a “sanctuary” and warned the committee of indulging “whims” instead of serving the community’s needs.
“I want this committee to hold out at least one sanctuary for a higher way of being and living,” Landsness said.
Ald. Shiva Bidar, District 5 and ALRC member, said while she empathizes with the concerns from “a heart place,” she did not have a strong reason to deny the license. She also said considering applications with other business interests in mind brings the committee down a “slippery slope.”
“Is it necessary? Not really. Do people really need this additional access? I don't think they do,” Bidar said. “Is it part of potentially something that the co-op feels it’s part of maintaining a viable business? It seems like it.”