PLAIN — Honey Creek Market isn’t your typical grocery co-op.
While others like Madison-based Willy Street Co-op, Yahara River Grocery Co-op in Stoughton and Viroqua Food Co-op in Vernon County are known for their organic produce, vegan options and bulk grains, the inventory at Honey Creek is more in line with that of a Pick’n Save or Woodman’s Market, although on a much smaller scale.
The co-op, with just more than 100 members, offers mainstream and brand-name products along with a small mix of locally produced foods. As the only full-service grocery store in this Sauk County village of more than 700 people, the business provides a vital service for local residents who otherwise would have to drive 8 miles to the Hometown Supermarket in Spring Green, 22 miles to the Walmart Supercenter in Richland Center or 18 miles to the Piggly Wiggly in Sauk City.
But Honey Creek Market’s business model is also different from most co-ops and regular grocery stores. That’s why, for the first time in five years, the small store across the street from the I-Diehl Tap and a block south of Straka Meats, is in the black, although its future is tenuous.
While there was a steady stream of regular customers buying loaves of freshly made bread, gallons of milk, heads of lettuce and jugs of laundry soap, much of the success in 2018 can be credited to a team of 14 volunteers who supported the staff of seven part-time paid employees at the co-op.
“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the volunteers,” said Mary Mercier, a member of the co-op’s board of directors for the last three years. “It’s made all of the difference. This is a unique community. The connections between people here are stronger than most small towns.”
Those connections also include years of donations from an anonymous investment group that has poured thousands of dollars into the business to keep it afloat.
Plain was established in the 1880s and became a village in 1912 although St. Luke’s Catholic Church was founded as a mission parish here in 1857. The village’s Bavarian roots are showcased each October with Strassenfest while the Schnitzelbank Restaurant offers up German fare year-round. Kraemer Construction, one of the state’s largest construction companies, is here as is award-winning Cedar Grove Cheese.
The grocery store also has a long history. Phil’s Foods, owned by the Bettinger family since 1918, was sold to the co-op in 2013, however, Lew and Joy Bettinger continue to own the 6,400-square-foot store at the corner of Alma and Main streets. The co-op had planned to buy the building after five years but the Bettingers have extended the lease by a year to give the co-op more time to determine its fate. The options could be buying the building, moving or closing the business.
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In 2018, sales were down 10 percent to $441,925, but the payroll was reduced by $44,289. In addition, cash donations declined to $3,037 compared to $35,348 from about 35 donors whose gifts ranged from a few dollars to several thousand. But the bottom line showed a profit of $11,458 for the year.
But this year is off to a slow start as sales are lagging by two percent over the first two months when compared to 2018 while donations and membership renewals are a combined $600 more than last year at this time.
“The board, which I’m not on anymore, decided they’re going to take a look at things in May and June and see where we’re at,” said John Feiner, 71, who has been with the co-op since its inception but is now the store’s assistant manager. “We’ve been at this brink here at least five or six times.”
Local products include sausage and ring bologna from Straka Meats and cheese from Cedar Grove Cheese both in Plain; wine from Wollersheim Winery near Prairie du Sac, bagels from Bagels Forever in Madison, locally harvested maple syrup and honey and homemade pulled pork, bread, cookies and take-and-bake pizza by in-house deli chef, Alice Ruhland. Eggs from Mary’s Organic Farm, a few miles out of town are expected to make an appearance in the coming weeks.
Donations to the co-op have included $10,000 to restock the store in 2016 and $10,000 to replace some refrigeration and freezer systems, which is now saving $800 a month in energy costs. Initially, there was a $150 lifetime membership but after two years that was changed to a $75 annual membership fee, which cut its membership in half to 125 from about 250.
In 2018, the business never went into the red overall, despite losing money in February, May, August and November.
And that gives Feiner and Mercier hope that the store, where a wooden donation box to support the co-op sits at the checkout counter, has a future. The volunteer program launched in 2017 and includes some students from River Valley High School and several residents who are retired.
“I didn’t know if the volunteer program would work,” Feiner said. “Right now it’s a year-to-year program.”
“Our future hope is that sales will increase and we will get better at what we’re doing and we’ll be able to replace our volunteers with paid employees,” Mercier said. “We want to support the community and offer more employment.”