If turning 35 means truly being all grown up, then the St. Peter Food Co-op is about to join the ranks of adulthood and is ready to do so with a panache all its own.
“I watched as the bond between the Co-op and St. Peter was forged over three decades ago, “commented General Manager, Margo O’Brien. “ It was a visionary time. A small group of folks got together, sharing a common goal of promoting and selling healthy, locally produced foods. Plus, we wanted to do it as a co-operative.”
The Co-op’s first location was in a small building located on the corner of Front Street and Broadway Avenue. Margo chuckled as she reminisced about the Co-op’s ‘learning years’. “Well, it’s true,” she said between sips of herbal tea, we were literally learning how to run a business.”
As the first volunteer at the Co-op, Margo did a little bit of everything from running the register to ordering spices. Oh, and then there were the cleaning, mopping, and closing schedules. Lending a hand in the Sandwich Shop and stocking shelves were part of the learning process also.
The Co-op stayed in the little building for 15 years. Some staff members became paid employees and Margo transitioned into the position of General Manager. Bursting at the seams from increased product offerings and increased foot traffic to match, one board member was often heard to say, “What we need is wall stretchers!”
With a sound business structure in place the Co-op was able to access dollars from St. Peter’s low interest revolving fund. When a larger building located just across the street became available, the Co-op was ready and willing to take on the task of moving.
The relocation proved to be an excellent choice, bolstered by continued growth and support from St. Peter and surrounding areas. “That’s when talk of ‘buying local’ really started to take off,” said Margo. “People started to realize how important it really was to keep their dollars in the local economy.”
Part of the Co-op’s business vision was to offer a point of sale for local producers like Adam Ellefson and his wife Lupita Marchan owners of Living Land Farm and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).
Adam’s connections with the Co-op stretch back to his high school days when he was a part time employee there. “It was great,” Adam commented. “I started in the produce department…..which, come to think of it, was a really good way to gain hands-on experience in what would later become my field of expertise.”
Living Land Farm provides the Co-op with a wide variety of produce grown just outside of St. Peter. While growers in other areas sometimes struggle to build a customer base, Adam realizes the value of being located near a well-organized outlet such as the Co-op. “We couldn’t do what we do without the Co-op,” he said. “They laid the groundwork for getting people into the distribution network. The Co-op does a great job of buying and promoting locally produced food. Our customer base was already built in at the Co-op, that’s been a huge help to us.”
The Co-op takes ‘local’ seriously. They currently offer products from over 50 local suppliers.
“Local means different things to different folks,” Margo explained. “The Co-op belongs to a consortium that defines local as Minnesota, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, and Iowa. That is a very understandable range for this part of the country.“ With that definition in place, the Co-op can comfortably boast that 96% of all dairy department sales are indeed locally produced.
The Co-op has come a long way in 35 years. From a few volunteers to over 60 employees, from a tiny building to an impressive expanse, and from a minor community response to overwhelming community support, the Co-op has not only survived, it has thrived.
Good leadership plays an integral part in that process and the Co-op has benefited greatly in having Margo O’Brien in that leadership role. The soft-spoken Margo explains her position this way – “A leader needs to have a vision and an ability to listen to the community, to involve the community. It is just the talent to turn that vision into something concrete that lets it all come together.”
Easily said, Margo. But not so easily accomplished. Your vision and guidance are duly noted.
Congratulations on 35 successful years, St. Peter Food Co-op! Here’s looking forward to many, many more.
Please visit the Co-op’s website at www.stpeterfood.coop