New La Crosse Store and Restaurant Opens
People’s Food Co-op in La Crosse, Wis., started laying the groundwork for expansion years ago. Peg Nolan, our co-op’s former general manager, made a brilliant purchase back in 1998, buying a house and lot adjacent to the building that the co-op was leasing. At the end of 2003, after we finally managed to buy the building that contained our store, the earlier purchase allowed us to create a great site plan.
We didn’t waste any time. One month after we signed on the purchase, we were tearing out walls and building the new office space. The project was an intensive and complicated one requiring many phases to complete. Total construction took 11 months from start to finish.
We had spent almost three years in planning, and we had a number of clear goals for the construction phase, the two most important being to keep the store open and to reduce the impact on shoppers and staff. Given that we managed to grow sales at a rate of 7.7 percent and were closed only four days during the project, we’ve decided that we were successful.
At the start of the expansion project, sales were $6.4 million in a space of 5,700 square feet of retail, with the co-op utilizing a total of about 11,000 square feet—offices and meeting rooms were in the house, and break room and storage space were leased on the second floor above the store. The expansion and renovation project gave the co-op a 29,000 square feet building that includes a 3,500 square feet basement; 12,000 square feet of retail on the first floor within an 18,000 square feet footprint; and 8,900 square feet of second floor space. The second floor houses the kitchen facilities, a 90-seat restaurant, a 900 square feet community room, and the co-op’s administrative offices.
Needed: a downtown grocery store
The first summer I was in LaCrosse, our local newspaper printed a survey of business people that attempted to identify the needs of our downtown business district. One of the responses that really crushed me was the call for a “downtown grocery store.” This was an eye opener, considering the fact that our co-op had been successfully located downtown for nearly a decade.
In our planning phase, we went on a fact-finding mission. What people said over and over was that they needed a “full-service” store with a better selection of fresh meat, everyday things like cat litter, and a greater selection of everything. We knew what we had to do. We set out to build a store that was big enough to serve the needs of our entire downtown community.
To satisfy those needs the co-op stole a butcher from another local grocery store and built a great new meat department; expanded the already successful deli operation; added about 2,500 new products to its packaged grocery selection, including many clean “conventional” items; expanded their produce department; went from 12 doors of frozen foods to 21; and added a full service, upscale restaurant named “hackberry’s.”
The restaurant is a risky proposition. There haven’t been many co-ops to try it, and those who have tried haven’t necessarily been blessed with immediate financial success. But a restaurant was something that came up over and over in focus groups. We’re gambling that the reduced overhead of having the restaurant on site in space that we’d have to pay for anyway, coupled with reducing our initial investment by being able to build out our deli kitchen and bakery in combination with the restaurant kitchen, will give us a better chance of long-term success.
La Crosse community, co-op community
The new store and hackberry’s opened on November 10, just in time for the big pre-Thanksgiving rush. We set a new sales record for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving with a $42,000 day. The momentum is good. As I write it’s too early for predictions, but both the store and the restaurant are right on track to hit budget.
There’s no way we could have done all this without the support of the cooperative community. General manager Anya Firszt and her gang from Willy Street Co-op in Madison showed up early in the project when our warehouse changed every price in the store—we didn’t have the time or the labor hours, and they re-tagged our whole store for us. Pam Mehnert, general manager at Outpost in Milwaukee, did a retreat with our board and management team to help us prepare for what to expect after expansion. Jan Rasikas, general manager of the Viroqua Food Co-op, and a number of her staff showed up during our final set to help us rebuild and load shelves. New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City also loaned us their crackerjack merchandising manager Billy Woodruff, to help us set up.
Along with all of these generous folks we had the support and guidance of Cooperative Development Services’ Bill Gessner and especially Denise Chevalier, our project manager. They really helped to make this a store that not only the La Crosse community built but that our co-op community built as well.
I’m so proud to work with people like this all over the country. This experience, rather than burning me out, has left me more inspired and energized for all of the work to come.
*** Michelle Schry is general manager at People's Food Co-op in LaCrosse, Wisconsin ([email protected]).