Now that the Willy Street Co-op has settled on Cliff Fisher's Metropolitan Place condos as the site for its second store, a hard question can be asked: Is the co-op late to its own party?
The 33-year-old co-op pioneered the organic food market in Madison. But success has bred plenty of mainstream competition, and Willy Street has been painfully slow in its deliberations, taking more than three years to select a downtown site that won't open until early 2008.
Meantime, the grocery business has been in a competitive tizzy. Wal-Mart has moved heavily into organics and is planning several new supercenters in Dane County. Roundy's has consummated its buys of Copps and Kohl's, closing some stores and modernizing others. Woodman's and Sentry have expanded. Pierce's has moved into a vacated Kohl's store on the north side. Trader Joe's has entered the market with a splash, taking the Monroe Street site that the co-op had been eyeing. And the formidable Whole Foods will double its size when it opens a new 65,000-square-foot store at Hilldale in 2009.
"The natural foods part of the grocery industry continues to be dynamic, with pretty close to double-digit growth, while [growth in] the traditional food industry is under 3%," says Mel Braverman, a co-op consultant in Madison. "That tells food operators that if they want to grow, these are the products they need to look at."
But Braverman and others don't think Willy Street is about to have its (nitrite-free) bacon stolen. The co-op is projecting a 60% increase in revenue to $22 million in 2008 thanks to the second store.
"Willy Street is one of the best-operated co-operatives in the nation," says the store's consultant, Michael Des Jardins of Dakota Worldwide Corp. in Minneapolis. "They're very strong in customer service, very strong on personnel management. They're just a good grocery operation."
Before settling on Metropolitan Place, Willy Street's board of directors looked closely at other sites, including Union Corners, Middleton and Midvale Plaza. General manager Anya Firszt says the co-op has a heavy membership downtown, and that its current store at 1221 Williamson is nearly maxed out. The Metropolitan Place store, she says, should relieve the pressure: "It's time to get on with it."
The new store will be located within a block of the now closed Mifflin Street Co-op, which doomed itself when it failed to tap into the burgeoning market of new condo owners downtown.
Firszt says the new Willy Street will be stocked similarly to the existing store, but with more prepared foods to attract lunch traffic and students and workers looking to pick something up for dinner.
"I like the idea of being downtown and supporting the new urbanization," she says.
And for that matter the downtown site may be a safer pick than the outlying options. While demographic data shows a strong interest in natural foods in these outlying neighborhoods, Des Jardins adds, "a person who walks into Whole Foods isn't necessarily the same customer who joins a cooperative."
Willy Street II
Where: Ground floor of Metropolitan Place's second phase, corner of Broom and Mifflin streets.
Status: A letter of intent has been signed; final approval hinges on ironing out details and positive votes by the co-op's members and the condo association members.
Size: 8,750 square feet of retail grocery space, compared to 9,500 in the current store.
Access: Excellent for pedestrians and bicyclists; 87 stalls for cars, 50 dedicated to the store.
Opening: January 2008.