Originator of the Guerilla Cookie.
The Mifflin St. Co-op will close:
Financial problems shut downtown grocery's doors
By Lee Sensenbrenner
Citing losses this year of nearly $60,000 as well as back taxes and other debt approaching $100,000, board members of the Mifflin Street Community Co-op say the downtown grocery, in operation since 1969, cannot remain open.
"The mistakes of the past and the changing climate of the present have become too great to overcome," Board President Matt Stoner wrote in a message to co-op members on Monday. "The board feels it is time to acknowledge this reality and let Mifflin pass into memory."
The co-op, which operates in an old brick building at 32 N. Bassett St. that has housed a grocery store since it was built in 1902, has been under financial strain for several years, and talk of shutting down is not new.
Last spring, for example, members were given the option to close the store, but instead voted to take out a loan to cover debts and "implement a new business plan" to see if the next six months could be profitable.
But instead of finding a way to become profitable, the co-op has lost another $30,000 since that vote in April, Stoner wrote, and last week the Internal Revenue Service presented the co-op with another $14,000 bill for unpaid payroll taxes.
Closing the store is the only option being given to co-op members at their Nov. 20 meeting, and Stoner wrote that "it is the only financially responsible decision available to us."
"Our situation only worsens the longer we stay open," he wrote, calling for plans to archive the co-op's historical documents and hold a goodbye party to celebrate almost 38 years.
Marked by a mural painted on its brick wall, the co-op sits in a neighborhood just west of the Capitol Square that has gradually transformed from three-flats filled with graduate students to blocks punctuated by student high-rises.
Apart from its color -- on the checkered linoleum floor, the hand-lettered signs, the bulletin boards and the produce -- the co-op was quiet this morning, with two staff members tending to a handful of customers who trickled in.
One of the staffers, 20-year-old Aaron Schneider, had just taken a paid position about three weeks ago after volunteering at the co-op for almost a year. Originally from Texas, he came to Madison after working at an organic farm in southern Oregon state that he said grew vegetables and medical marijuana. He said he is drawn to cooperatives because they "put the power back into the hands of the people."
But instead of realizing all that a grocery cooperative has to offer, he said students in the area are lured by the quick and easy.
"Students here are so concerned about convenience," he said, talking about how they can order their groceries online at a nearby store.
"It's touch-of-a-button convenience," he said. "That's what's destroying our community."
Josh Stuewer, 28, who is a full-time staffer and a member of the co-op's board, also attributed some of the co-op's difficulties to demographic changes in the neighborhood. He said that the kind of people who founded the store now more often live near the Willy Street Co-op. "It seems as though the student body has become more conservative," he said.
Although it means losing his job, Stuewer said that he agrees that there is no other choice but to close the store and sell the building, a course of action he voted for as a board member. "We can't get into a situation where our debt exceeds the value of the building," he said. He did not blame management for the financial difficulties, saying that it has been "casual, but effective."
Before he strolled the aisles of the shop this morning, regular customer Bob Hruzek got some advice from Schneider about tea and its effects on iron absorption. Hruzek said he found the co-op several years ago when he was living as a "traveler." During a stop in Madison, he wondered away from the Greyhound bus stop and found the corner grocery store. His travels, he said, began after a car crash left him briefly in a coma and permanently with brain damage. It ended his work in construction, and he took off, exploring the United States, staying in national forests and public parklands.
Over 10 years, he stayed periodically in "mountainous Tennessee, Marin County, Calif., Eugene, Ore.," among many cities, but eventually settled in Madison about a year ago. "Without question, this is a developing metropolitan area," he said. "We're right in the marrow of it.
"This is a budding metropolis. It's not going backwards, ever. You have to get to the core of the city and hold on to it," he said. "Or not."
In the co-op, he saw something that he liked.
"It's both the actual physical structure of it, and what it represents," he said. "I like, in my life, enterprises such as this."
While the Mifflin Street Co-op has struggled for several years, other small groceries in the city have found some success, particularly the Williamson Street Grocery Co-operative.
Anya Firszt, general manager of the Willy Street Co-op, said she was surprised Monday when she heard the news."I thought they had a good plan to turn around their diminishing sales," she said.
Firszt said the Willy Street Co-op had loaned Mifflin Street $5,000 cash in 2002, which was repaid. The east side grocery had also been helping out more recently with some in-kind advertising and printing help.
But at some point, Firszt said, an operation needs to be self-sustaining. "Fundraising is not a means to keep a business running," she said. The Willy Street Co-op has been one of the most successful co-ops in the state, with sales up nearly 14 percent last year to $13.2 million. Membership has grown to 14,000.
Like Mifflin, though, the Regent Market Cooperative has been struggling. Although it has not yet threatened shutting its doors, it sent out a plea recently to members seeking $60,000 in contributions. That grocery at 2136 Regent St. is facing new competition with the opening of Trader Joe's at 1864 Monroe St.
"Trader Joe's is going to impact all of us," said Firszt.