The Willy Street Co-op has been a fixture on Madison’s eastside since 1974. The growing grocery co-operative added a second location in Middleton in 2010.
The Willy Street Co-op has also been a loyal business underwriter of WORT 89.9 FM Community Radio. Why have they been such a longtime WORT supporter, I wondered.
So I caught up with busy Brendon Smith, the Director of Communications at the Willy Street Co-op’s offices on East Washington Avenue, just after the holidays. Here’s what he told me.
Question [WORT]: How many members do you have at the original Willy Street Co-op compared to the newer branch in Middleton?
Answer [Willy St. Co-op]: They’re really all in one group. Willy Street Co-op Owners are owners of the whole co-op, encompassing both stores. We added about 4,200 new Owners in the first year of Willy West [the Middleton store] opening.
Q. Do you or the Co-op’s Board of Directors fear getting too big?
A. People continue to be interested in what the Co-op has to offer – local, organic, and special-diet food; more control over where their food comes from and who makes it; and a business that they truly own. We strive to keep the customer service personal, the operations transparent and our products as wholesome and fairly priced as possible. If our Owners don’t feel that their Co-op is getting too big, we’ve done this well.
Q. What are the advantages of being such a relatively large co-operative, other than the economy of scale that makes purchasing products & produce more efficient?
A. That is a big benefit, but we are also able to help support more local and organic farmers, give back more to the community (over $100,000 in donations and sponsorships for nonprofits last year), and help out other food co-ops get started or improve their organization.
Q. Why has the Willy Street Co-op been such a loyal underwriter & collective supporter of WORT?
A. We have a lot in common – we were both established by individuals who saw a need that their community wasn’t meeting, and we exist to serve that community.
Q. How does it benefit your organization?
A. Helping to support like-minded organizations helps all of our organizations.
Q. Is it more a business decision, a charitable contribution or both?
A. It’s both! It’s good business for us because WORT listeners tend to be people who value the same things that our cooperative does.
Q. How does the Willy Street Co-op’s local nutrition mission dovetail with WORT’s twofold mission to serve both
the local broadcast-range audience as well as the wider community that follows us via the World Wide Web?
A. We want to make sure that our customers are making informed decisions when buying food – we provide information about who makes the food we offer, we support labeling products containing GMOs, we will continue to label where our meat comes from (even though Congress repealed the law requiring country-of-origin labeling), and so on.
Brendon Smith closed by noting that empowerment is at the heart of the Willy Street Co-op’s mission – another vital goal that it has in common with WORT.
“We want to empower Owners of our Co-op,” he said. And the more than people around the world can learn about co-ops and see that it’s an business model that provides a sustainable, healthy alternative to more typical ones, the more likely we are to see an overall increase in co-op members and co-ops.”