The Bisman Community Food Co-op is making progress on its debts that left regional growers unpaid.
The food co-op, 711 E. Sweet Ave., was opened with the premise of giving shoppers a place to buy healthy, locally grown foods, but in October, the grocery store owed vendors more than $236,500, with $42,550 of that owed to local producers.
Since then, the co-op has been paying off $2,500 to $3,000 of its back debt each week, said general manager Carmen Hoffner. And while money is still owed, the number of accounts payable has gone from 110 to about 70.
“The store has come a long way,” said Larry Reiker, who runs the co-op’s meat department. “I think we’re on the upswing.”
Money owed to local vendors had ranged from less than $100 to a few thousand dollars each. The co-op is paying those vendors the full amount for any new delivery plus a portion of what was owed.
The co-op switched to a new principal vendor, Minneapolis-based UNFI, which comes with the benefit of lower prices and faster delivery. With cutbacks to staff and product ordering, the co-op is operating under budget, compared to the tens of thousands of dollars it was previously overspending, Hoffner said.
Sales also have held steady compared with last year’s numbers, averaging $7,971 per day in January and $247,148 in total sales for the month. So with a similar income and fewer bills, the business is inching back to solvency.
“Our nose is above water,” said board member Tracy Potter.
Having back due bills was particularly difficult for a number of small, local vendors, especially coupled with last year's drought. But many have been willing to wait because the co-op has been a great opportunity for them.
"I can make more selling to the food co-op than I would at a farmers market," Mirek Petrovic said in October.
Petrovic and his wife run Slavic Heritage Farms, a producer that has organized a food hub of local producers near Anamoose a sells to the co-op.
In fact, the group Petrovic helped organize, FARMtastic Heritage Food Hub, is doubling down on the co-op and will start selling soups, baked goods and bread there next Friday.
Hoffner said the co-op is planning on holding a producer meeting in March too, to address questions and concerns they may have going into this summer.
“Now we just need that bump in sales,” said board member Beth Schatz-Kaylor.
And if the trends the co-op saw last year continue, sales are expected to climb in March.
Schatz-Kaylor also is heading a marketing effort to grow their customer base.
"We have a strong base of customers, but there are still a lot of people who don't know about us," she said.
The co-op has applied for grants to pay for marketing materials, but even if the grants don’t come through, the co-op is slowly building up a marketing budget. It has also loaded its events calendar as another a way to attract new customers.
In January, 20 people attended a weight loss seminar, 28 attended a class to learn about bone broth, 26 attended a class on making yogurt and 40 attended a class to learn how to make kombucha.
Each of those classes drew a different base of people who might return to the store for more than just events.
This summer, the co-op parking lot also will host two Tuesdays of BizMarket farmers market, which will support local growers and introduce market-goers to the store.
"We're so confident we’ve come out of this stronger," Schatz-Kaylor said.