At first glance, Ashland, Wisconsin does not appear a likely location for a food cooperative. It is a blue collar, post-industrial town with a modern day strip of fast food restaurants, gas stations, and chain discount stores. Smoke belches from a coal-fired electric plant on the waterfront, and U.S. Highway 2 blows by town, separating Main Street from Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior.
But look a bit deeper and you'll discover an energetic, alternative population seeking slow food and lively conversation. A mere two blocks up from Hwy. 2, on Chapple Avenue, the Chequamegon Food Cooperative bustles Monday through Saturday. The co-op is located next to the Black Cat Coffeehouse (which serves organic food) and across the street from a bakery in progress. This food triangle has earned Chapple Avenue the nickname "Wheat Street."
The Chequamegon Food Co-op started as a buying club 25 years ago, then moved to a storefront, and then another and another until it landed at its present location in 1986. In the early years the co-op suffered financially, but in the last 10 years, sales have grown steadily -- so much so that in March the Chequamegon Food Co-op more than doubled its space, growing from 800 to 1,750 square feet.
Long before the renovation began, the co-op's board of directors had anticipated outgrowing the store space and quietly began eyeing larger storefronts. A fire next door at a hair salon, which shared a brick wall with the co-op, determined this project's future. The salon relocated, and the co-op bought the neighboring building in July 1999 for $61,000.
Local artists designed a historically correct facade for the building, including a mural illustrating the inside of an Ashland grocery store circa 1910. The exterior project cost $20,000. The co-op received two city grants, totaling $3,050, to help pay for the exterior work.
Meanwhile, manager Linda Rise and the board pored over architectural, design, and business plans. A supportive local bank loaned the co-op $170,000 with a fifteen-year term, which covered the renovation and mortgages on both buildings. Northcountry Cooperative Development Fund and the Ashland Area Development Corporation each provided five-year notes of $40,000.
The new building was completely gutted and remodeled over a four-month period, and in March the wall came down. The co-op closed shop for a long weekend, its employees working round the clock, before it opened its new doors. "The beauty and utility of the new Co-op is shocking even to me, although I did the planning and management," wrote Linda Rise in her manager's report to the membership. "There's room to move and even to shop. I didn't realize how cramped our little store was until we had space."
In addition to wider aisles, the new co-op has two checkout counters instead of one, better displays, a larger produce area, and a new self-serve deli case and cheese cooler. The store is brighter, better organized, and has an open feel to it. "People browse more now," Rise says. "It's amazing to see how many people who never took carts before now take a cart."
Behind the scenes, there's more work and storage space, including a walk-in cooler with display doors for stocking from behind. (The old store required workers to walk outside into the alley to access a cooler.) The business plan anticipated a 32 percent sales increase. In the first month, sales jumped 36 percent. "Customers love the store," says Rise. "Regulars are spending more money, and new people are coming in."
Chequamegon Food Cooperative: Ashland, Wisconsin
[former location / new location (March 2001)]
Size (retail): 800 sq. ft. / 1,750 sq. ft.
Size (total): 1,300 sq. ft. / 2,730 sq. ft.
Annual sales: $607,000 / $800,000 (projected)
Staff: 6 / 9
Member owners: 2,095
Relocation project costs: $260,000