New co-op brings groceries, hope to north Minneapolis

Emmett Hutchinson picks out the perfect pepper.
Wirth Cooperative Grocery member Emmett Hutchinson tries to pick the perfect pepper.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

It's probably not a stretch to say Emmett Hutchinson could be Wirth Cooperative Grocery store's biggest booster. He brought in more than three dozen new shoppers after the Aug. 10 opening with an enthusiastic pitch.

"Come and check it out. It's our store," he said. "This is a community store, so it's our store."

On a recent day, he'd convinced his nephew Desean Tennin to give it a look, and Tennin was impressed.

"This store right here is a big step," Tennin said, taking in the scene. "I like it. It's nice, organic and everything. I like how the store is laid out, the colors and everything. It makes you feel at home. I'm going to come back and bring other people with me."

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Hutchinson joined Wirth a month before it opened. And now his nephew is sold too.

Wirth is less than a month old but it's already a source of pride. Its location and inventory mean accessibility to fresh food and vegetables to neighborhoods without supermarkets.

But there was nothing quick about residents' effort to bring North Minneapolis its first co-op. It took 10 years.

"There were so many roadblocks but they were determined because there was a need," said Winston Bell, the co-op's general manager.

And that need produced substantial consumer support for the effort.

"We had just over 700 members before we even opened the doors," Bell said.

Those hopefuls paid $100 each.

At 4,500-square-foot, the store's footprint is small, about a tenth of the median for the industry. But it's organized like a typical grocery store. There are sections for produce and packaged goods.

Parts of north Minneapolis are federally designated "food deserts," census tracts of low-income residents with little access to supermarkets. The co-op's founders wanted to increase access to fresh foods, foster a culture of healthy eating, and stimulate the neighborhood economy.

General Manager of Wirth Co-op Grocery, Winston Bell help his cashier.
Winston Bell, the store's general manager, helps a cashier out with a machine.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Wirth Co-op board member Kristel Porter said the founders believed a co-op would not only improve nutrition in the area but provide a sense of ownership and foster neighborhood pride.

"North Minneapolis has been often looked over," Porter said, "and not having the same amenities over time will do something to you, especially to our children, and understanding that we deserve to have the same things everybody else has."

The grassroots effort hit plenty of snags. There was turnover on the board. New and complex licensing for co-ops didn't help either. But Porter said the main delay was financial.

Banks doubted a food co-op would be viable in north Minneapolis. Financing was contingent on demonstrated demand. Banks wanted to see a certain number of paid members before making a loan. Over the years, Porter said, the required number of memberships kept growing, from 250 to 700 members. But eventually they reached the goal.

"Being able to rally up people and get them to invest in something that wasn't there is really hard to do in a community that has the lowest average area median income in the entire city of Minneapolis," Porter said.

Some of Wirth's original members have moved out of state.

"It's been so long that we have people who signed up that may live in Michigan," general manager Winston Bell said, adding some of them plan to shop at Wirth when they visit.

Despite the bankers' skepticism, Porter said the cooperative business model is a good fit for the organization's social goals and the area.

"If we're going to start building our community financially, economically we have to pool our resources. We don't have rich uncles or grandfathers that can cash us out so we can start our business."

A $500,000 federal grant, along with other donations, OK'd late last year finally set things in motion, leading to an approval for financing.

The store is in The Commons at Penn, a mixed-use building built by former NBA player Devean George, who grew up on the north side.

Board Member Kristel Porter poses inside the store.
Kristel Porter, one of the co-op's board members, hired Bell as general manager.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

"The after school program for the kids and the grocery store for the community. Goodbye food desert," George tweeted recently.

The co-op also wants to keep money in the community. It employs 10 people and a growing number of its produce suppliers are in north Minneapolis.

"Like this squash here," said general manager Winston Bell, cradling one of them. "This is organic, right out of somebody's farm, about six blocks from here."

Melissa Knofczynski, a social worker at a high school in the neighborhood, grabbed lunch recently with a colleague for the first time at Wirth's deli.

"It's fantastic to have it close by our school because we've only had the options of going down Broadway and it's mainly all fast food," she said. "There's never been healthy options to come and pick out something different so this is fantastic. I'm excited."

North Minneapolis is slated to get a nonprofit grocery store this fall. Pillsbury United Communities is set to open North Market about 3 miles north of Wirth co-op, where membership has been steadily climbing.

Social media, along with old-fashioned door-knocking and leafleting, are spreading the word that the co-op is finally open.

Emmett Hutchinson's been a major force in getting the word out, with his posting on Facebook and passing out fliers.

Hutchinson's brought in so many new shoppers that he was recently added to the co-op's payroll as a marketer.

The co-op is a few blocks from his house, so he doesn't have to hop on the highway for his organic foods. His diet is healthier, and he talks endlessly about the co-op.

"These people are a wonderful group, the energy's wonderful, the space is beautiful. When you walk in here you can smell fresh fruits. It's just a good way to interact with the community."

Editor's note (Sept. 8, 2017): An earlier version of this story implied that the Wirth Co-op is a nonprofit. It is a for-profit.