A large group of Mabel-area residents gathered last Wednesday evening to hear information from the committee working on establishing a grocery cooperative in Mabel. The meeting was facilitated by Cris Gastner, the Fillmore County economic development coordinator, and featured Richard Carr, the general manager of the Root River Market, a coop in Houston.

"I know the committee appreciates this great turnout," Gastner said as he opened the meeting. "I know it is an encouraging sign that the community is interested in what is going to happen."

He explained it had been about a year since the Mabel residents learned they would lose their grocery store. A group of citizens gathered almost immediately and began working to bring a grocery store back to town.

"The committee has a good hard look at the road in front of them," Gastner added. He explained the committee members, along with Mabel's economic development coordinator, Sherry Hines, have talked to other area grocery store owners and investigated options for a potential future grocery.

After gathering information regarding a grocery cooperative, the committee felt this would be the best option for Mabel and conducted a feasibility study and a proforma, which outlined what it would take to make a grocery store work in this small community.

Gastner helped the committee with a business plan, which is still in development, and surveys were sent out to the residents to gauge the level of support they would give to a new store.

"Each step they have taken has led to the next step," Gastner added. "And that brings us here, to this meeting."

A view of a coop

Carr provided those gathered with a view into what a working cooperative would be like. As the general manager of the coop in Houston, he assured the residents that a small town could support a grocery and make it work.

"We were in the same position as Mabel," Carr said. The Houston grocery store closed in 1998 and admitted since he was only 23 at the time, he didn't really care. However, now, both he and his wife are employed in Houston and have a family and realize how important it is to have a grocery store in town.

"A group - similar to the one here in Mabel - worked to bring a grocery store back to Houston. They talked to a coop in La Crosse that had a wide selection of natural and organic food. You can about guess how well that went over in Houston," Carr send with a chuckle.

Being a coop, however, does not dictate the kinds of goods one can sell, Carr explained.

When the group started in Houston, the members tried to focus on selling local products, but soon found they were not in a position to access those products easily or affordably, so when it opened 12 years ago, it was more like a conventional grocery store than they had first thought it would be.

Carr said the store operated at a loss for the first nine years, but has been profitable for the last three years. When asked what made the difference, he explained they had learned how to adapt and how to manage its debt.

He explained that when the coop was being formed, the entity took out loans from some of its members. "It's an option, but it's one I would strongly discourage you from doing," he added. The debt those loans created made it difficult to make a profit and finally the board of directors in Houston asked some of their benefactors to forgive those loans, which many did.

"We're here today because of generosity - because people want us to be here," he added.

Carr also strongly urged the Mabel committee not to own the building, but to lease it from either the EDA or a private entity. This allows the coop more working capital to improve inventory and grocery equipment.

A cooperative is typically operated by a board of directors with a general manager handling the day-to-day operations. Houston has 540 members, each paying a one-time fee of $100. There are certain benefits to being a member, such as discounts or special promotions, but the store is open to the public.

An additional benefit, beyond providing a source for food and supplies, is that grocery stores often provide an employment opportunity for young people. "There are not a lot of places where area students can learn and work," Carr added. "It helps kids become more social and it sets them on a good path to prosperity. Providing a job or employee opportunities, whether for a student or a resident, is a great thing."

He said the coop in Houston provides five full-time jobs and 15 part-time jobs. They are currently adding a bakery in their store, which will add two positions as well.

Carr stressed that just because a grocery store may once again open in Mabel, local residents are not obligated to shop there. "You need to prove they should shop there. Everyone has their own shopping habits and reasons for shopping elsewhere. That's OK," he said. "You need to win them over. Your store can be known for something. You have to decide what that is."

While having a coop in town is convenient for the senior citizens, Carr said it is really the families that a coop needs to draw into the store. "We want to supply the needs of our seniors, but we want the support of families who have their shopping carts full every week," he explained.

Survey results

Committee members Michelle Weidemann and Leah Austin shared the results of the survey, which they felt were very positive. Over 200 surveys were returned and of those, 176 said they would support a grocery store in Mabel. An overwhelming majority of those returning the survey said they would do at least 50 percent of their shopping at the local store.

Austin added that one of the major factors for taking residents out of town shopping was the fact that Mabel did not have a pharmacy. She explained the committee hoped to be able to have a pharmacy in the new store, but that it was still "in the works."

Sue Amunrud, another committee member, said most of the people who returned the surveys ranked "quality of food" and "availability of food" as the main aspects residents would be looking for in the new grocery.

She also stressed that one would not need to be a cooperative member to be able to shop in the grocery store. It would be open to all in the community.

Show of support

When asked to raise their hands if they would support a grocery store if it was built in Mabel, a large majority of the 83 people attending the meeting did so.

The committee was seeking an indication of such support to see if it was worth continuing on in the process. With the number of people attending and the positive comments that were made, the committee will continue to the next step to establish the coop, Hines explained.

The committee also continues to seek out a location for the store and would like to see a private developer step forward to build the building so local contractors could be used.

Look for more on this meeting in next week's News-Record.