MADISON – In 1974, a group of dedicated volunteers opened The Willy Street Coop at 1101 Williamson St. (now Mother Fools coffee shop) in a small space shared with a natural bakery. The goal was to adhere to principles like sustainable lifestyles and social responsibilities, along with providing equal consideration to the needs of members, worker's rights and a humane work environment.
It's 37 years later, and the co-op continues to strive for these things and, based on company growth and staff retention, it appears they are doing a pretty good job of it.
"This is a great place to work," says Dan Frost, the manager of the Willy Street Co-op East who has worked at the co-op for 18 years and met his wife there. "I love a challenge and when we face a challenge we coordinate with the other co-ops and then ultimately figure it out for ourselves."
On Nov. 15, 2010, the co-op added a second location, called Willy Street West, in the city of Middleton.
The Willy Street Co-op feels similar to Milwaukee's Outpost Natural Food chain. It is clean and spacious, with a down-to-earth staff and a boutique-y feel. Also like The Outpost, the items are well stocked and presented. In fact everything looks so appealing, it's easy to over-shop.
The Willy Street Co-op recognizes Outpost members, as well as Riverwest Co-op members, with a membership card.
The Willy Street Co-op is based on the seven cooperative principles that were drafted in 1966 by the International Cooperative Alliance. They are: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives and concern for the community.
The sixth principal, "cooperation among cooperatives," is the basis for P6, a trade movement that emphasizes co-ops supporting other co-ops. At Willy Street, any item for sale that is from another co-op is tagged with P6 signage. To be considered a P6 product, it has to represent two of the three criteria: be from a small farmer / producer, be a local product and / or affiliated with a cooperative or non-profit organization.
The co-op offers bulk items, a juice bar, bakery, health and wellness items, produce, seafood (they have a sushi bar that's run by Okinawa Sushi), coffee, cheese and mostly organic produce. There's also an on-site kids' area, hang out space, rain garden and courtyard with a few tables.
There are several membership options available at The Willy Street Co-op. An individual can make seven payments of $10 each or a one-time payment of $58. Either way, the individual can then vote, receive member discounts (five percent off purchases), get a patronage refund during years the co-op is profitable, receive a news letter, participate in the organization by serving on committees or running for the Board of Directors.
The Willy Street Co-op was the first Wisconsin co-op store to receive an Energy Star Label. To receive this prestigious certification, a business must perform in the top 25 percent compared to their national peers. On the average, an Energy Star property consumes 33 percent less than other buildings.
The co-op received the label due, in part, to their sustainable deli, promotion of bag credits, environmentally-sound cleaning supplies, an emphasis on natural and organic food, high efficiency lighting, low-flow water fixtures, heat reclaim systems, high-efficiency refrigeration systems, day lighting, biodiesel truck deliveries, rooftop solar panels, solar pumping stations and more.
The co-op also offers a "co-shop" program which offers three shopping options to customers. They can order their food items online and have them delivered; they can shop in store and have the groceries delivered or they can order online and then pick up their groceries. The cost for these services depends on the size of the order and ranges from $9.99 to $19.99.
Currently, The Willy Street Co-op employs 273 people. "We try to involve staff on all levels, from getting their feedback to the decision-making process. We have a really great group of people here," says Frost.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.