They say that the key to a successful business is location, location, location. Yet location, along with a small space, may have been, in the end, the death of the Mifflin Street Grocery Cooperative. On Monday, co-op members voted to close the 37-year-old natural-foods store.
"Instead of asking why didn't Mifflin succeed, we should turn that around and ask how did it succeed as long as it has?" says Anne Reynolds, co-director of the UW Center for Cooperatives.
Reynolds believes that the cooperative model is actually what kept Mifflin afloat, attracting a small but devoted membership willing to volunteer their time. Yet the store's small size limited what the store could offer and left it unable to take advantage of cooperative buying networks that offer volume discounts on products. The lack of parking also limited the customer base to mainly foot traffic.
"No one would look at that space and think, 'What a great place for a grocery store,'" Reynolds says. He cites Willy Street Co-op's move to a new space a few years ago as the key to its continued success. Customers from all over Madison and surrounding towns were attracted to its wider selection of natural foods.
"With all the development downtown, the timing will soon be right for the full-service grocery store everyone has been talking about," says Reynolds.
Developer Cliff Fisher has the space and the desire to open that downtown store. Calling Capitol Centre Foods, downtown Madison's only full-service grocery store, little more than an "oversize convenience store," Fisher would like to see a larger store with plenty of parking. He has reserved 20,000 square feet for a full-service store in Phase II of Metropolitan Place, his development in the 300 block of West Mifflin Street. By comparison, Willy Street Co-op's current retail space is about 9,500 square feet.
"My space is four times the size of Cap Centre Foods and has parking for 80 cars, so it could serve not only people who live downtown, but people who work downtown as well," says Fisher. Fisher says he is discussing terms with two different potential grocers right now, and expects that a store will open next year.
Rumors have flown that one of those possible tenants is the Willy Street Co-op. General manager Anya Firszt isn't willing to say one way or the other. "There's so much development downtown that it isn't just Willy Street's game. It could be something completely new," Firszt says.
For two years now, a Willy Street Co-op subcommittee has been pursuing either opening a second store or expanding the co-op's current east-side location. About 18 months ago, the Willy Street Co-op explored a potential partnership with the Mifflin Street Co-op to open a new store downtown, but Mifflin's members voted against that idea.
Firszt believes that the downtown area is ripe for a store, particularly one that provides natural foods. "People would like to buy food close by," she says. "It's hard to live in a place without a grocery store, so something's going to happen for all those new residents, food-wise."