Startup grocery cooperative Whitewater Grocery Co. says it now has nearly enough members to start forming a business plan, and it could start scoping out possible sites for a new store this summer.
Meanwhile, an official for the cooperative says its vision has shifted from a locally-sourced, farm-to-table operation to more of a “hybrid” grocery store.
Under the new vision, the store still would operate as a member-owned co-op, but it would sell farm-to-table products along with conventional groceries, freshly prepared foods and meals.
Whitewater lost its main supermarket, Sentry, in 2015. That left the city of 14,500—with a UW-Whitewater student population of 12,000—with only one major grocery retailer: Wal-Mart.
Lacey Reichwald, president of the Whitewater Grocery Co. Board of Directors, said the cooperative, which started up about a year ago, now has 410 paid members. The group considers a membership base of 500 as the trigger to forming a full business plan.
Reichwald said the results of a grant-funded market analysis prompted the group to shift from an earlier concept of operating a “farm-to-table cooperative” to more of a full-service grocery store—likely one in the 15,000-square-foot range.
“Our vision up to now has focused heavily on traditional co-op. But after getting our first market study (early in 2018), we’ve digested that and realized we can build a grocery store that meets the total needs of Whitewater. We now want to build a full-service grocery store,” she said.
Under its emerging plans, Whitewater Grocery Co. could sell “farm-to-table” produce, meats and other items in half of its store while dedicating the other half to more traditional supermarket items, with a focus on freshly prepared food items and meals, Reichwald said.
The Whitewater Community Development Authority earlier awarded the Whitewater Grocery Co. a $10,000 startup grant, which Reichwald said the cooperative used to pay for incorporation, marketing and a website.
The co-op used a $10,000 federal grant to tackle the market study, aided by a grocery market consultant.
Reichwald said the 500-member milestone marks the “halfway” point to the 1,000 paid members the co-op desires.
But she believes recent membership growth might steer the attention of potential investors, landowners and government officials toward the co-op and its prospects for launch.
“I feel like we’re going to have a lot more support from the powers that be in the (Whitewater Community Development Authority),” Reichwald said. “It’s hard to ignore over 400 citizens who say we have a desire for a grocery store, and we support the idea of building it ourselves.”
Dave Carlson, executive director of the CDA, said he’s aware Whitewater Grocery Co. has shifted from its earlier plans to a more “hybrid” grocery store concept.
Carlson said the CDA has been working with a number of grocery retail groups in the last few years to try to land a new grocery store in Whitewater. He said the group is touting city tax incentive tools, and it has whittled the candidates to “a few prospects that would be at least semi-serious about doing something in Whitewater.”
Carlson wouldn’t identify any of the other grocery store prospects, but he said Whitewater Grocery Co. is the only startup the city has talked to.
The others are “established” grocery sellers, and all of them are focused on smaller format, hybrid grocery stores.
“I would consider that with the co-op, we’ve got four potential prospects,” Carlson said. “The question is, who is going to get there first and what kind of assistance is going to be necessary to make that happen?”