Lacey Reichwald recalls a community forum in 2015 after Whitewater’s only full-service grocery store said it planned to close its doors.
“I remember angry people pointing at city officials and saying that someone needs to do something about this,” she said.
Instead of looking to someone else to fix the problem, Reichwald jumped in with both feet.
“It occurred to me I can do something about this,” she said.
Today, the community has taken important steps to bring a cooperatively owned and full-service grocery to the city under the leadership of 36-year-old Reichwald.
She is president of the Whitewater Grocery Co. Board of Directors.
The wife and mother also owns two successful Whitewater businesses, The SweetSpot Café and The SweetSpot Bakehouse, and believes in the power of people working together to improve their community.
“If I want to live in a vibrant community, it’s my responsibility to help create that community,” Reichwald said. “You find time for what’s important to you.”
She received the Making Democracy Work Award from the League of Women Voters in Whitewater for her work with the grocery project and community engagement.
In addition, she has been a featured speaker at community-owned grocery events in Wisconsin and other states.
“If I say that she is a linchpin to building a community-owned grocery store in Whitewater, it might be an understatement,” said Anne Hartwick, secretary of the board of directors for the Whitewater Grocery Co.
“We’ve often been cited among our peers as the fastest-growing rural-startup food co-op in the nation,” Hartwick said. “Much of our accelerated progress can be attributed to Lacey’s leadership.
“Her ability to rally people to a cause, inspire them to think beyond themselves and empower them to tackle a tough issue cooperatively, all while running a successful restaurant and bakery, is simply nothing less than extraordinary,” Hartwick added.
Albert Stanek and his family were some of the first responders to the community grocery membership effort. Stanek also is a Whitewater grocery board member and chairs the site-selection committee.
“Lacey’s experience as an entrepreneur is invaluable,” he said. “But her enthusiasm, attention to detail and leadership skills are a huge part of the success of the effort to date.”
Reichwald is a born doer.
“We are all in the business of changing the world,” she said. “It’s overwhelming and seemingly impossible when you look at the big picture. But when you look at the ripple you create and how it spreads, it’s far more manageable.”
Whitewater as home
Reichwald moved to Whitewater in 2006 to finish her degree at UW-Whitewater. She wanted to be a professor who taught communication. She immediately fell in love with the kindness and openness of the community.
When Reichwald graduated, she was working as a barista at The SweetSpot coffee shop. The owner asked if she was interested in buying the business.
Then 26, Reichwald brought in some silent investors and took ownership on New Year’s Eve 2008 during the Great Recession.
Foremost, she wanted to create a community hub that sells coffee and food.
“I always wanted a place where people could hang out, like that coffee shop on ‘Friends,’ where you can have a community conversation,” Reichwald said.
In the last decade, the business has expanded three times.
About five years ago, she, her mother, Karen Moline, and a business partner opened a second Whitewater location, which is a bakery and coffee shop.
Reichwald believes that both places serve food and a higher purpose because they make people feel welcome, give back to the community and try to “make our corner of the world a better place.”
She and her mom have 38 employees, most of them part time.
“I think of everyone who works here as an emerging professional probably because I see how far I have come,” Reichwald said.
Jumped right in
No one told Reichwald to work on Whitewater’s grocery problem, but she thought she could get the ball rolling by doing some research.
Soon, she attended community meetings. She met with the managers of Sentry, the grocery closing its doors. She talked to local and regional grocers.
In addition, she read books about grocery stores. She started a Facebook group to discuss the grocery problem. She added 50 of her friends, but the site quickly grew to 500, then 800.
She did all this with the support of her husband, Dustin.
Early in 2016, she and three others traveled to Indiana for a food co-op start-up conference sponsored by the Food Co-Op Initiative of Savage, Minnesota.
The Whitewater Community Development Authority paid for Reichwald and the others to attend so they could research solutions to the grocery problem. One of the possible solutions was a food co-op or a cooperatively-owned grocery store.
“We quickly learned that we were the only group there, and maybe the only group in the history of the conference, to have been funded by our city and to have a city council representative and member of our community development team present,” she said. “We had already accomplished a public/private partnership that was unheard of.”
The Food Co-op Initiative has helped hundreds of co-ops get started by offering a model for development.
Members or owners join the co-op with a financial commitment. This not only raises startup funds, but it also shows local support, Reichwald said.
The community’s goal is to have 1,000 owners by the time the store opens, and Whitewater has more than 500.
The group is about halfway there in terms of owners, but it still has a ways to go in terms of site selection, financing the project and hiring a general manager.
“We are looking at three different locations and finalizing the feasibility process,” Reichwald said. “We are about to do our final, formal market study.”
A board of seven members does the bulk of the work with the help of consultants.
“I’m willing to spend as much time as needed on the fact-finding stage,” Reichwald said. “I don’t want to just build a store. I want to build the right store.”
Making a difference
Reichwald believes everyone has the power to make a difference.
“When I hear people say, ‘Who is going to do something about this?’ they are giving away their power,” she said. “A lot of people don’t think they have the knowledge or the time. But we are all learning as we grow.”
She said an army of volunteers and advocates has changed the conversation in Whitewater.
“Instead of people standing around asking, ‘Who’s going to fix this?’ we have people standing up and saying, ‘I’m going to fix this,’” Reichwald said.
“Some pay their ownership fees and wait. Some jump in with the heavy lifting. Some cheer them on.
“But they are all involved in some way,” she said. “They are all empowered, creating their own ripple effect that is spreading. We didn’t have to change the world to make a difference.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.