Following regional trend, Whole Earth food co-op renovates, rebrands

Posted April 13, 2016

Whole Earth Grocery Cooperative in downtown River Falls received a facelift at the end of March, following the trend General Manager Evan Sayre says is happening at similar establishments throughout the region.

Leading up to the renovation, the annual owners meeting was heavily publicized due to a big announcement that was to be made. Sayre, who has held his position for just about a year, said the reaction so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The reaction has been two-fold. We not only remodeled, but also underwent a branding change. We unveiled a new logo and brand. Nobody at the meeting knew, or shouldn’t have at least, what we were going to announce. We tried to keep it secret to increase impact as much as possible,” Sayre said. “We were a little nervous, but the reception has been very positive.”

The renovation happened overnight. Whole Earth closed for 24 hours, and employees worked in 12-hour shifts. First they took out the shelving, and put the products in milk crates for storage in a large truck. A flooring crew came in and replaced the white tiles with a chestnut-colored wood.

Mika Lambert, an art student at UW-River Falls and a cashier at Whole Earth, was a part of the process.

“Everyone was super tired,” she said. “I honestly thought it impossible to do in just a day, but we got it done. I couldn’t be a part of the whole thing because of class, but it was a really intensive and hardcore process and I think it’s really admirable that everyone worked to hard to finish super quickly.”

She added: “A lot was done to increase the flow of the store, too. It’s not hard sections. Now one section leads to another for a smoother shopping experience. Now when you walk in you’re led right to the produce and coffee instead of the cashiers.”

The lighting was also changed from fluorescent bulbs to LED bulbs, a push towards integrating more sustainable practices to Whole Earth’s business model, Sayre said. A new cooler will be installed, which will also help the co-op save both money and reduce its environmental impact.

As general manager, Sayre is responsible for all operational decisions, and decided it was time to renovate based on the growing number of whole food stores in the region.

“The decision had less to do with growth and more to do with competitive environment,” Sayre said. “Organic and natural food stores are becoming more prevalent than general stores. We needed to do something to react to the change in shopping habits.”

This also was the reason for rebranding the store.

“This is a trend happening in co-ops across the Upper Midwest right now,” he said. “All of them are rebranding or remodeling and growing or moving or making some dramatic change. There’s just a conventional pressure.”

Lambert said she likes being a member as well as employee because it is very different from the other stores in town.

“Globalization makes everything look the same wherever you go, and it’s nice to find a gem where you know that this small co-op isn’t in every other town.”

Sayre said that stores like the co-op just offer something that conventional grocery stores cannot.

“They’re increasing in popularity, but there’s also a challenge to differentiate what we offer through the co-op model, as well as offering real local products versus conventional,” he said. They can do the packaged stuff as well as we can, but they can’t do produce and local suppliers as we can.”

This may be what sets the co-op apart. Sayre said that at the annual meeting, he was happy to announce that of the money spent on products last year, 30 percent went to local suppliers.

“That’s a pretty big number when you consider that we’re a relatively small store, but that impact on the local market is pretty strong on local farmers.”

He said there are plans in the works to expand in the next three to five years, which would almost certainly mean a move.

“Staying on Main Street would be optimal, but we need a parking lot,” Sayre said.

Whole Earth Co-op was founded in the early 1970s, but Sayre said the exact year isn’t known. It was first located on Main Street, moved to a location on Walnut Street, and moved back to Main Street in 1992. The co-op has been in the current location, 126 S. Main St., ever since.

Whole Earth has about 1,680 members. Each member owns an equal share of the co-op, and can vote to elect a board of directors that makes big-picture decisions, and hires the general manager.

Hallie Chasensky has been a part owner of the co-op for just about a year.

“I was lucky enough to get my membership while I was a student and their discount at the time was very inexpensive for us,” she said. “Now we (owners) get a nice discount on every purchase instead of a cheap membership price. I live two doors down and enjoy the quality, local and organic food, plus the workers are incredibly friendly and helpful.”

As a customer of the co-op, Chasensky said she is very pleased with the renovations.

“The layout makes shopping way easier to navigate and started introducing new products and brands that add to the experience. It bumped from a small town “get what you can” feel to a more modern and innovative store that offers their clientele what they need.”

The atmosphere of Whole Earth, and knowing what she’s supporting, is why Chasensky said she loves shopping at the local business.

“Being a member of Whole Earth has made me a more responsible shopper in many ways. I use less, waste less and feel better about my decisions as a consumer. Not many other grocery chains can give you that experience,” she said.

“I feel like I’m part of my community by supporting, even in a very small way, the business and local farms and families who provide all the produce,” Chasensky continued. “My body and mind feel better because I’m eating better and using responsible, eco-friendly products for my home.”

Sayre said Whole Earth will have an official grand re-opening party, likely in early May.