MOUNT HOREB — With fewer than 200 members, the 1,500-square-foot store averages between 30 and 40 customers a day and annual revenues are just north of $300,0000.
Those numbers are not enough for Trillium Community Grocery Co-op to survive.
That’s why the grocery co-op’s board of directors is reaching out to its membership to gauge support for a plan to move the store to a larger location that would provide room for growth and more visibility in this western Dane County village of 7,330 people.
Without the upgrades, which would likely include a name change, the co-op, founded in 2001, and located just a few doors west of the bustling Kwik Trip, would likely be forced to close.
Sales have lagged, the store remains behind in payments and is losing money.
“We’ve operated on a shoestring, which has become frayed,” said Ken Scott, board president and a co-op member since 2004. “We do recognize our current footprint is too small to be economically sustainable. Consultants have told us that, and we’ve experienced it as well.”
The board has set a March 15 deadline to hear back from members who were sent a letter from the board on Feb. 18.
According to the letter, obtained by the State Journal, the board is proposing a larger scale store and is trying to measure interest in alcohol sales, new pre-ordering options and a collaboration with with other food businesses.
The new store could also include a larger kitchen, classrooms and “be a central place for building community.”
If there is membership support, both in concept and financially, a business plan would be created and ultimately a bond sale scheduled to fund a larger store.
No locations have been announced, but a site in the village’s downtown would be preferable, Scott said.
A decision would likely need to be made by this spring.
“The initial responses have been very supportive,” Scott said. “The (letter) that went out has really created a buzz.”
Wisconsin is ripe with co-ops.
According to a UW-Madison Center for Cooperatives report, 773 state co-ops generated $17.2 billion in revenue, accounted for 35,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in wages in 2012.
Those classified as grocery/retail/wholesale accounted for $1.9 billion in revenue, 4,477 jobs and $63 million in wages.
Other co-op categories included agriculture with 173 co-ops and $9.1 billion in revenues; mutual insurance (92 with $3.3 billion); utilities (45 with $845 million) and credit unions (203 with $1.2 billion).
In Dane County, grocery co-ops include Willy Street Co-op, which has 31,000 members, two locations and is looking for a third site. The much smaller Regent Market Co-op, established in 1998, has about 1,000 active members while Yahara River Grocery Co-op, which opened in 2008 in Stoughton and survived early financial problems, has about 1,190 members.
The 800-square-foot Mifflin Street Co-op, founded in 1969 at 32 N. Bassett St. in Madison, closed in 2006 after years of financial problems and dwindling membership.
Courtney Berner, a cooperative development specialist with the Center for Cooperatives, said many Mount Horeb residents commute to Madison, which is home to a Whole Foods, Willy Street Co-op and Willy Street Co-op West in Middleton. Those stores are considerably larger and offer more amenities.
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Berner said the minimum size for a co-op should be about 3,000 square feet.
“There are always outliers that are small and have found a way to succeed, but the odds are stacked against them,” Berner said. “Smaller grocery stores, whether family-owned or co-ops, struggle anyway.”
Trillium traces its roots to the 1970s, but it became an employee-owned co-op in 2001.
In 2013, it converted to a member-owned co-op where owners pay a $125 one-time fee ($100 of which is refundable) and have voting rights.
Prior to the change, patrons were accustomed to paying an additional $20 to $40 annually to become co-op members in exchange for member discounts and special ordering privileges.
The co-op, located in the same building that decades ago was home to Grandma’s Grocery, features a produce section that at peak season can include vegetables from 40 growers.
There is freshly made hot soups to go, bulk seasoning and dry goods, soaps, locally made cheese from Deppler’s in Monroe and Hook’s in Mineral Point and NessAlla Kombucha from Madison.
Breads come from Cress Spring Bakery near Blue Mounds and Schubert’s Downtown Restaurant in Mount Horeb.
Patties of Catnip Hollow Bison raised south of town and hamburger from Angus cows raised at Feist Organic Farm near Barneveld fill part of the freezer section.
“I’ve always supported this kind of co-op, but I don’t always frequent it as much as I should,” said Ginny Feist, who stopped by the store last week and runs the farm with her husband, Al.
“This is not a one-stop shop for me. Hopefully, if they do get a bigger building, maybe it will be.”
Theresa Berrie, 47, drives from Ridgeway to shop at the co-op.
Last week, she filled her canvas shopping bag with lettuce and kale, a pound of butter, a jar of spaghetti sauce, pasta and canned chicken. She has been a member for more than two years.
“This store means I don’t have to drive all the way to Madison,” Berrie said. “I like it because it’s small. It’s actually easier to shop when there’s less choice.”
One of the newest additions to the store is Lynn Olson. The Stoughton native was hired about a year ago as interim general manager. She previously spent 11 years in management at Willy Street Co-op.
Olson, who worked for Whole Foods in Chicago for five years, brings experience in bond drives and in scheduling forums.
She also worked in advertising and merchandising but moved back to Madison in 2001 to be closer to family.
At Trillium, the process to expand needs to be driven by the owners, not just the board of directors, said Olson, who worked at Willy Street Co-op when it expanded to Middleton. A 5,000-square-foot store and 2,000 members would go a long way toward sustainability. In addition, non-members who shop at the store do not pay a surcharge.
“This business won’t survive another year if we don’t do something to change it,” Olson said.
“This cannot be a two-year process. Time has caught up to us. We don’t have time anymore.”
‘We’ve operated on a shoestring, which has become frayed. We do recognize our current footprint is too small to be economically sustainable. Consultants have told us that, and we’ve experienced it as well.’ Ken Scott
Board president and a co-op member since 2004