As I walk in through the front doors of the new Willy Street Co-opWest, the first thing that hits me is that it smells just like the co-op on Willy Street. It's not quite the scent of patchouli or anything that obvious. Dr. Broner's soap with an undercurrent of cantaloupe and bulk lentils and celery root, maybe, a sweet, earnest muskiness.
"It smells like a co-op," assistant manager Wynston Estis confirms, without any definitive info on the source of the aroma. A young staffer is unpacking candles and arranging them near a register, though the produce has yet to arrive, and the bulk area is only beginning to be filled with, well, bulk.
The new store is located in the Parkwood Plaza shopping center at the corner of University Avenue and Park Street in Middleton. One week before the grand opening - on Monday, Nov. 15, at 10 a.m. - the place is still populated with workers wearing hardhats, young people without hardhats stocking shelves, purveyors like organic egg man Dean Dickel checking out the space, and the persistent electronic chatter of ringing cell phones.
While the center of the store, stocked with nonperishable items like cereal and canned goods and chips, has started to come together, the periphery is still empty, the two-deck and four-deck display cases wrapped in plastic. The Commons, where patrons will sit and have a cup of coffee or eat lunch, is stacked full of boxes and is still absent tables and chairs.
It looks and feels very much like the familiar co-op, though, from the fonts in the signage to the basic layout (produce to the left upon entering, the deli in the right rear). The walls are painted a rainbow of 2010 colors: cream, terracotta, mustard, chartreuse, Willy Street eggplant purple. (There's also an eggplant-purple stripe on the registers. "We had them match that from the bumper stickers," says Estis.)
Although the store is only 200 square feet larger than Willy East, it feels more spacious. Those extra feet have paved the way for extra features. The produce selection will be consistent with the current items at Willy East, says Estis, as she takes me on a tour of the new store, although West will feature more prepackaged and ready-to-eat items like precut fruits and veggies. West will carry more frozen food, including meat and seafood.
And West will have a real butcher counter, with a back room boasting a meat locker and a meat saw - all the equipment needed to process meat. "It's something that's long been missing [from the co-op], and we are excited we'll be able to offer sustainable, humanely raised and local meat," says Estis. On-site processing should mean more competitive pricing on those items.
Meat has been a small part of the original store, in part because when the new east-side location was built 12 years ago, the co-op "wasn't ready culturally" to market meat that prominently, says Estis. In fact, when the east-side store opened, "we hid the meat with the coffee display," says Estis, which ultimately didn't work out because "no one was buying the meat because no one could see it." Now the co-op's patrons have a more diverse approach to sustainable and ethical eating.
The deli, which Estis has dubbed "the theater of the deli," is larger and more open, with islands for a hot bar and a cold bar; a station where customers can have deli items from stir-fries to quesadillas to sandwiches grilled to order; rotisserie chickens sourced through Local Dirt; a staffed bakery counter; an expanded cheese area that will also feature chocolate and champagne and other items to facilitate pairings; and an island for grab-'n'-go sandwiches, dips and salads. Beer and wine sales are also new. "There will be more cross-merchandising, more fun ideas for fun shopping," says Estis.
The store was designed with the help of P.J. Hoffman, one of the few designers in the country that specializes in co-ops. A community room with a fully furnished kitchen (formerly a demo at Dream Kitchens) and outdoor patio seating complete the amenities.
So far, the co-op has created 80 jobs, 55-60 being full-time equivalents, says general manager Anya Firszt. During a sneak peek at the store earlier this fall, 242 new members joined.
Longtime co-op staffers are relieved that the goal of finally opening a second store is just about realized after several false starts, including jockeying for the Monroe Commons site that eventually became Trader Joe's, and exiting a site at Metropolitan Place downtown when that development went into foreclosure. They are hoping Middleton will be impressed with the co-op and benefit from the concept. They're starting by stocking what are strong sellers at the original store. "They'll tell us...a unique focus will announce itself," says Estis.