The countdown to Pam Mehnert’s retirement from her position as general manager for Outpost Natural Foods Cooperative is swiftly coming to an end. In fact, Friday, June 2 is her last day overseeing operations at the local grocery cooperative, where she has worked for 42 years.
Mehnert’s tenure with the local cooperative grocer began in 1980 when she took a job as a customer service clerk. From there, she worked her way up, taking on roles as assistant grocery manager and marketing manager. In 1987, she was hired as the general manager of the Riverwest store on Holton and Keefe, which saw yearly sales of between $1-2 million per year.
Since then, much has changed. Mehnert has overseen the establishment of all four current Outpost locations, including Bay View (2005), Capitol Drive (1990), Wauwatosa/State Street (2000) and Mequon (2014). She has steered the cooperative ship through changing market conditions, recessions and three years of challenges related to the global pandemic.
She has also become an expert in looking out across the grocery landscape and picking up on consumer behaviors, trends and market insights which impact sales and growth at the community-driven grocer.
This week, Mehnert will leave an organization that has become one of the largest grocery cooperatives in the U.S. with yearly sales of $50 million and a business run on 100% renewable energy which has contributed to the community through support of organizations like Hunger Task Force.
But, even as she moves on after over four decades, she’ll continue to assist other grocery cooperatives on their forward journeys through her consulting business Flying Squirrel Milwaukee.
From hippie grocer to head turner
I first met Pam Mehnert when I interviewed her in April of 2010. She’d recently embarked on a year-long journey of living without the ease of convenience foods. Despite a busy schedule, she vowed to cook meals from scratch, eschewing pre-made items like crackers, pasta, bread, yogurt and cheese in favor of their home-made counterparts. Along the way, Mehnert blogged about the experience at “A Year of Inconvenience: This Girl Is Making It All Herself.” [Read more here]
Mehnert's public-facing experiment was aptly timed. Even more, it reflected her 27 years of experience in the world of cooperative grocery, an industry built on regard for health, wellness and environmental ethics.
Just a few years earlier, Michael Pollan had published "Omnivore's Dilemma," a sobering look at industrial food production in the U.S. Demand for pesticide-free food was growing, along with support for buying locally. Consumer attitudes toward food were changing. The world was ready to engage with her "year of inconvenience" and possibly even put elements of it into action.
Even at this point in her career, significant changes had impacted the world of cooperatives. For one, the values that led to the creation of those original "hippie" grocers were becoming more mainstream.
“When I started with Outpost, we ran a natural food store,” she reflects. “Our mainstay was bulk and local foods including fruits, vegetables, grains and honey. We served a community for which eating locally and naturally was a lifestyle choice. We also worked with a smaller number of suppliers. Knowing our vendors was of the utmost importance because it engendered trust.”
For the first 15 years of her career, there were no USDA standards for organic and – much like today – the word “natural” was up for interpretation. But awareness was growing. In the 1980s, the U.S. saw an increase in research about the effects of pesticides on both health and the environment. The “Great Apple Scare”, resulting from discoveries about the impact of ALAR, caused mass hysteria across the nation, priming the market for the eventual introduction and growth of organic foods.
In 1990, Outpost relocated the co-op to Capitol Drive. A bigger store meant a large cafe, a fresh meat department (previously, all meats had been sold frozen) and eventually a coffee bar in collaboration with Alterra (now Colectivo) and a salad bar. For the first time ever, the co-op also began selling wine and beer. The changes didn't come without controversy among co-op purists, but it was an effort to keep Outpost competitive with other local conventional grocers.
Unsurprisingly, sales doubled for Outpost and those numbers continued to grow. By 1992, with sales topping $5 million, the cooperative hired its very first marketing director. It was money well spent. After all, entrepreneurs like John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods, were swiftly expanding, buying out smaller stores and competitors as they grew.
“By the 1990s, the grocery market was primed for growth,” says Mehnert, “Even then we knew it would be all about organic and natural foods. We were in a very good position, but our competitors were also paying attention and looking for ways to take advantage.”
USDA Organic boosts demand
By the mid-90s Mehnert and Outpost were among those petitioning the USDA to implement standards for organic produce, a call that the USDA heeded, rolling out standards for organic production and processing in October 2002.
Growth in the market led to the opening of Outpost in Wauwatosa. The store, which opened in 2000, converted a former brownfield property into a neighborhood grocer and established the first green/sustainable grocery store in Wisconsin.
“From my perspective, when things really started to change was when Whole Foods came into the market in 2006,” says Mehnert. “Every conventional grocery store began to feel the pressure to carry more organic and natural products. While organic had been previously relegated to a few shelves in the corner of the store during the 80s and 90s, stores began integrating the products into their conventional selection.”
As the market changed, and more Whole Foods stores opened across the nation, “natural” and organic” became words that were more and more synonymous with “expensive.”
“The costs were real,” says Mehnert. “And while Outpost couldn’t necessarily offer products that were cheaper, we did work really hard to be competitive by using regional collective buying power in any way we legally could.”
Mehnert championed those processes. In 2005, the same year that Outpost opened up the Bay View location (in an abandoned Kohl's store), the formation of National Co+Op Grocers codified the practice of cooperatives coming together to increase their buying power with an organization that centralized cooperative buying and marketing, making it accessible to cooperative grocers across the nation.
Smart growth & a values-driven future
As Outpost expanded its reach, Mehnert understood that it was increasingly important to ensure that expansion also aligned with the cooperative's mission: creating a healthy, diverse and sustainable community for its owners.
“We really started developing strategies around growth,” Mehnert recalls. “We made up our minds to grow so that we could help more local farms and small food businesses, educate consumers, generate more dollars to impact local nonprofits and support the local economy and community overall.”
Those strategies led to the addition of the Mequon Outpost in 2014, a store that was awarded LEED® certification for its green design and sustainable assets.
Thanks to Mehnert, Outpost has also remained ahead of the game on values-driven consumption, a tangible consumer trend that continues to grow as young consumers move toward purpose-driven spending that aligns with their principles.
“We’ve become the line between the best price and the best product,” says Mehnert. “We’re unapologetic about paying local vendors what they deserve. They deserve to get paid for the work that they do.”
Mehnert says that, along those same lines, it will be important to continue to educate customers about the value of what they are buying – from the sustainability of packaging to the quality of the ingredients. Does it support the local economy? Are workers treated well? All of those things matter and contribute to both value and pricing.
She also says that, while the pandemic resulted in an increased demand for grocery delivery, it also brought increased attention to the value of physical grocery store experiences.
“It has created demand for smaller stores with great customer service and a pleasant shopping experience,” she notes, citing that even big brands like Walmart and Meijers have begun building smaller format stores in response.
Additional considerations moving forward, she says, include the impending implications of climate change on crops and meat production, as well as the impact of the pandemic, particularly supply chain challenges associated with a global economy.
“If we’ve learned nothing else, it’s that one little thing can cause a ripple effect that impacts everything else,” she says. “And, as a result, we may see a shift back to local in a variety of ways.”
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.