Willy Street Co-op eyes expansion

The Willy Street Co-op in Middleton would undergo a $2.25 million expansion into an adjacent space in Parkwood Plaza if a ballot initiative is approved this month by the co-op's more than 34,000 members.

Almost a year after opening its third location, Willy Street Co-op is on the cusp of expanding its Middleton store and eyeing further expansion opportunities elsewhere.

The co-op’s more than 34,000 members will vote this month on new members for the board of directors and an amendment to the by-laws that addresses conduct by board members. But the two most notable items on the ballot, if approved, would expand the co-op’s brand as competition in the Madison area grocery market continues to expand and evolve.

One proposal asks the co-op’s membership to approve a $2.25 million expansion of Willy West, 6825 University Ave., while a second question seeks permission to spend more than 10 percent owner equity on an expansion project within the next three years. No sites or projects have been identified but it could include a fourth store or expanding the co-op’s production kitchen.

“The co-op needs to position itself for smart growth over the next few years to serve a growing community of owners, to compete against an increasingly crowded natural foods marketplace, and to be the leader in the community we aim to be,” Holly Fearing, president of the co-op’s board of directors, wrote in the July edition of the Reader, the co-op’s monthly newsletter. “We know that not all of our owners are currently being served conveniently with a store in (or) near their neighborhood and yet they still (choose) to support us by spending their grocery dollars with us. We want to support and serve owners and our community as much as we can in return.”

Grocery competition is stiff in the Madison area. Most grocery stores in the last 20 years have greatly increased their natural and organic food sections. Festival Foods, which in 2016 opened a 55,000-square-foot store on East Washington Avenue, announced in May a plan for a store in Verona, while Copps stores in Dane County have been remodeled into Pick’n Save stores following the purchase of Roundy’s by Kroger.

It’s also unclear what changes will be made to the Whole Foods store at 1313 University Ave. following the purchase of the company by Amazon.

The co-op, founded in 1974, completed a $4 million renovation of its Williamson Street store in 2014 and spent $3.5 million to open its Middleton store in 2010.

In 2014, co-op members approved pursuing a third site and a $1.5 million bond drive to fund the project on Madison’s North Side.

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This year’s ballot initiatives for the Willy Street membership are seen as a way to strengthen the co-op’s position in the marketplace.

Anya Firszt, general manager of the co-op, said the expansion of the 10,000-square-foot Willy West would push into adjacent space currently occupied by the UPS store, which is moving to a different spot in Parkwood Plaza.

Since opening in a former Walgreens space, the co-op has reached “capacity in sales and the limits of an ideal shopping experience within a small space,” Firszt wrote in the Reader.

“This redesign would include rearranging the entrance and seating area, a better configuration of the registers, and other adjustments to provide better flow within and around the store. The annexing of new space will also provide opportunity to increase backroom storage, cooler and freezer walk-in space, which means greater inventory control for staff and fewer out-of-stocks for our owners.”

While no sites for a fourth store have been announced, possibilities would appear to be Verona, Mount Horeb or Sun Prairie, some of the fastest-growing communities in Dane County.

Other possibilities could be Stoughton, Fitchburg or Madison’s South Side. But regardless of the community, expect any new location to be in a neighborhood-type setting.

“We’ve learned that moving into locations without rooftops are not ideal for us,” Firszt said. “What property developments might become available is unforeseeable, but we need to be poised to act quickly when it presents itself.”

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Send retail-related tips and story ideas to badams@madison.com or call Barry Adams at 608-252-6148.