Willy Street Co-op Triples Production Space at New Off-Site Kitchen

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Willy Street’s new kitchen is a bright, airy, clean place that has turned the most skeptical employees into believers.

There is nothing like change to make a financially sound, managerially strong, three-decade-old business feel like a tyro. Just ask at Williamson Street Grocery Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin.

In 2004, our membership voted overwhelmingly to expand into a second site and open an off-site kitchen, measures taken to manage the growth at “Willy Street.” Even though we moved into our current, 13,000-square-foot store only five years ago, the rise in the intervening years in deli and bakery sales left those two teams practically working on top of one another. Our cut-fruit program stalled out for lack of production space. Our grocery turns set record highs because we had run out of room to stock inventory.

One year later, we are still negotiating on that second store site. The commissary kitchen, on the other hand, became reality in mid-March. The new 4,000-square-foot facility was more than a change of address; the Willy Street Co-op Kitchen forced us to look at our entire organization and rethink operations.

We established a three-point mission for the kitchen:

• To support demand for the Williamson Street Grocery Co-op brand through additional store sales as well as wholesale and catering accounts;

• To increase the use of local and organic produce in the prepared foods market; and

• To partner with schools and other nonprofits to bring organic products to their tables.

In the off-site kitchen, we are considered a food processor, not a food retailer. We are no longer under the jurisdiction of our local health department; we report to the USDA.

OK, thought many of the managers, so we’re being watched by the feds, no problem. The employees thought otherwise—and so did some key managers. Concerns ranged from eroding margins and skyrocketing labor costs to a loss of our Willy Street culture. The staff reacted as if they were being sent to a prison camp.

To get everyone back in a comfort zone, we organized a communications committee to report on the progress at the off-site kitchen. Product managers as well as nonproduct managers met weekly to plan. In addition, we spent lots of time one-on-one talking with the most concerned staff members.

We also turned to the co-op community for help. Chris Ryding at the National Cooperative Grocers Association helped design our kitchen. Co-ops with commissary kitchens, like Weaver Street Market, provided input on the accounting process. We did our own research by touring Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis and New Pioneer in Iowa City.

From our membership, we found a consultant for our Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plan. With that plan in place for the kitchen, we have the bare bones for designing a plan for the entire store and keeping everyone working in the same fashion.

Getting the project done meant I needed to hire a project manager from outside the co-op—our staff was working at full capacity to keep the store on a smooth course. That manager came on board in early December and got a crash course in co-op operations from the store manager. By mid-January construction had begun.

As it turned out, our new kitchen is a bright, airy, clean place that has turned the most skeptical employees into believers. Many of them feel more confident about their new responsibilities as a food processor because they successfully completed a national training program about safe food-handling procedures. When the kitchen was just a plan on paper, they had trouble envisioning the final product; now they appreciate the investment of about $500,000 that the co-op made in them and the facility.

We are still fine-tuning the reporting side of the second site. Management originally projected the kitchen to work as a department of the store but then realized as the opening neared that it would need to be treated as a separate site. In fact, we know the whole operation will need some fine-tuning, so we have scheduled three-month, six-month and one-year operational reviews, as well as staff evaluations.

The lessons we learned? Stay flexible: change creates lots of unexpected stress, and some staff will handle it better than others. Communicate: everyone needs to know where they are going, and the more they know, the smoother the trip will be. And, of course, cooperate: there’s lots of help out there, either through your membership or through the community, so just ask.

*** Anya Firszt is general manager at Willy Street Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin and a member of the board of directors of the Blooming Prairie Foundatin ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #118 May - June - 2005