Right on Main Street in Gays Mills, but tucked back a little bit, is a shop that has been providing natural and local products since the 1970s.
The Kickapoo Exchange Natural Foods Cooperative Grocery, or KEX as its known by locals, began in 1975 as a food-buying club. The goals for the group were much as they are today, providing wholesome food, as well as fostering community involvement.
A year later in 1976, the first storefront was opened and staffed completely by volunteers. After fires destroyed two different buildings that housed the store, the members decided to build a new energy efficient store. That store remains today selling wholesome food and more from its location at 209 Main Street.
Cooperative is defined by Merriam-Webster a couple of different ways, ‘Involving two or more people or groups working together to do something’ and ‘relating to a business or organization that is owned and operated by the people who work there or the people who use its services.’
The cooperative movement started in the 19th century with the first notable food cooperative started in Rochdale, England, by industrial weavers known as the Rochdale Pioneers.
The origin of the modern cooperative movement began in the 1970s when many ‘second wave’ cooperatives started. The goals of these co-ops were often like those of the Kickapoo Exchange. To provide an alternative to what was available at conventional grocery stores. Food cooperatives began to emerge in major cities, college towns and small villages like Gays Mills. Between 1969 and 1979 close to 10,000 food co-ops, including the Kickapoo Exchange, were established.
The KEX operates under the Seven Cooperative Principles, which has roots tracing back to the first modern cooperative founded in Rochdale, England in 1844. The principles include: in order, voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, members’ economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training and information, cooperation amongst cooperatives and concern for community.
The governance of the KEX has been consensus based from day one.
“Each member’s voice is equal and important,” is a statement proudly included on a small flyer about the co-op. Working together seems to be something that is working out for the small co-op. Many members of the board are also founding members, who have been with the store since the beginning.
Although most of the store continues to be operated on volunteer worker basis, there are a few paid employees including manager Denise Benoit, and assistant manager Christopher Skaaland, as well as Water Crest Café staff.
Community is a cornerstone for the KEX. They are operated by community members, staffed by community members and even stocked by community members. But there are many who have never stepped past the threshold.
“There are a lot of local people who have lived here and haven’t stepped foot inside and we would like to change that,” observed store manager Denise Benoit. “We may not meet everyone’s needs with what we sell, but we would like to serve our community. I don’t think a lot of people realize that we sell a lot of good old-fashioned food.”
The old-fashioned food of which Denise speaks includes some classic staples, many found in the extensive bulk section of the co-op. Whether it’s a ‘pinch or a pound’ you need, you’ll likely find it at the KEX. There’s everything from molasses to rolled oats, honey to locally roasted coffee beans.
Recently, the KEX underwent some much-needed upgrades. Thanks to a generous anonymous donation, the co-op was able to purchase a new freezer and coolers, including an open produce cooler, from the former Pine River Food Co-op in Richland Center, which had recently closed.
“It’s great because we are able to better show our products, people can come in and see what we have easily. Improved accessibility was very important to us,” Denise explained.
Another way for shoppers to utilize the KEX is by special ordering. Offering items ordered through the UNFI website, buyers can receive an array of different items that may not be available normally on the co-op shelves at only 20 percent over wholesale prices. Large or bulk purchases are also available through this UNFI special order.
“Anyone can come in, and Chris or myself can teach them how to do special orders,” Denise said. “Then once they learn, they are able to make orders through the form on our website.”
The co-op requires a prepayment for the items ordered, but is willing to teach anyone how to use this service. You do not need to be a member to utilize this great service or to shop at the co-op in general.
Although you do not need a membership to shop, there are some benefits for those who choose to join. A two percent discount, with an opportunity to volunteer for four hours a month for a 10 percent discount, or eight hours a month for a twenty percent discount. Being a member also offers up the opportunity to participate in co-op governance through elections, membership meetings and board service. There is eligibility for patronage rebates, contingent upon co-op profits. Co-ops are also the only business that gives the membership democratic control over how business is done, the values expressed, and the leadership that governs it. Joining the co-op involves paying an annual membership fee. The KEX uses a sliding scale and encourages members to consider what they can afford. The yearly sliding scale is $25-$55. Currently there are about 90 member households.
In addition to the bulk ingredients, fresh produce and spices galore, the KEX also offers organic dairy and local farm fresh eggs, frozen meat and fish, local specialty products like jams and pickles, beer and wine and other hard to find ingredients, and well as natural personal care products.
A year ago, the KEX took the plunge and opened a café in its back room. The Water Crest Café is open Wednesday through Sunday and brings a lively energy to the space.
“It’s really given us a valuable way to branch into a new arm of the business,” Denise told the Independent-Scout last week. Sitting at a table in the café, you feel like you are a part of the action. You’re surrounded by the smells of baked goods, fun, music and the laughter of Café staff—K O’Brien, Kile Mertz, and Kathy Shepherd.
The Water Crest Café menu changes every couple of days, dependent on what is available seasonally and in the store.
“It really helps to manage inventory in the store,” Denise noted. “One week we may have a rush on something like peaches and I’ll order a bunch and then not as many people will buy them, so I can just talk to K and she can put something together for the café, so everything gets used.”
Currently, the Water Crest Café is working on expanding their ‘grab-and-go’ selection. A small display cooler, also acquired from the Pine River Co-op, now is home to many items from the Café. Early this week, pulled pork, guacamole, and sausage curry could be found, along with mini cheesecakes—all ready to go for the hungry customer in a hurry.
The Café also has been hosting successful ‘Second Saturday Suppers,’ which offer diners a unique experience every month. Centered on a theme, recent dinners have based on themes such as garlic or the ever-popular burger.
“The dinners have been a big hit,” said Café manager K O’Brien. “They’re holding us together.”
Panini sandwiches, Greek salads and some kind of curry can usually be found on the menu during the week.
“Curry has been such a hit. I would have never guessed it but everyone loves the curries, so they’re here to stay,” K said with a chuckle.
The Café is hoping to expand to some self-serve options in the future, with their big pie in the sky dream being a pizza oven.
“I would LOVE a real pizza oven one day!” K said without hesitation. “We are surprised it has worked as well as it has. We have just wonderful appreciative customers.”
The Café has also started expanding into catering. By being flexible with their offerings, the promise of the future seems bright.
The Café staff all seemed to back K when she said she was looking forward to next year. I am sure the community and visitors to the café feel the same as they seek out the delightful flavors offered in the back room of their local food co-op.