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Celebrating Ten Years of “Food for People, Not for Profit”

Riverwest Co-op:

by Erin Christman

They all say the same thing: that ten years ago, they couldn’t even have imagined the Co-op lasting this long.

No matter how many times I ask the founding members of the Riverwest Co-op & Cafe about its tenth anniversary, they’re always in awe of the accomplishment. “Ten years!” they exclaim, wanting to make sure I realize how amazing that is.

Riverwest Co-op:Celebrating Ten Years of “Food for People, Not for Profit”

by Erin Christman

They all say the same thing: that ten years ago, they couldn’t even have imagined the Co-op lasting this long.

No matter how many times I ask the founding members of the Riverwest Co-op & Cafe about its tenth anniversary, they’re always in awe of the accomplishment. “Ten years!” they exclaim, wanting to make sure I realize how amazing that is.

Volunteer Gibson Caldwell told me he’s “humbled and amazed that we got here.” For me, one of the Co-op’s newest board members, I can’t imagine it not being here.

Neither can Lisa Schelling, another new board member, who says the Co-op is the reason she moved to Riverwest last year: “I got a job in Milwaukee, and I wanted a neighborhood near a library, a post office, and a food co-op. Not only is it this awesome resource, but it has the ability to draw people to the neighborhood.”

So now it’s time to celebrate our first decade of “food for people, not for profit.” On Sunday, November 13, the Riverwest Co-op & Cafe is throwing a party at Falcon Bowl for all our members, friends and supporters. There will be dinner catered by the Cafe and music from the Western Starlanders.

And in an effort to make our Co-op even “cooler,” there will be a silent auction to raise funds for a new walk-in cooler. The auction will feature items from many neighborhood businesses and organizations that we’ve supported and have supported us throughout the years.

We’ll be kicking things off earlier in the month with a cocktail contest at the Public House on Tuesday, November 1, when members can name the cocktail they’d like to represent us at our sister cooperative.

Ten years ago the Riverwest Co-op was entirely volunteer-run and had just a few shelves. Shelly McClone placed the orders and Wendy Mesich organized the volunteers. Shelly is still placing the orders, but now the store is bursting with produce, bulk foods, and local products. Five years ago, the Cafe was just a garage, and now it’s serving up the best vegan and vegetarian food in the city.

Everyone I talked with agrees this wouldn’t have been possible without the strong foundation already laid in the neighborhood by organizations like Woodland Pattern Book Center, COA Youth & Family Centers, Polish Falcons and the Falcon Bowl. The Co-op has grown along with the neighborhood, seeing the beginning of community organizations like Jazz Gallery, RW24 bike race, Riverwest Public House (we’re especially proud of that one) and businesses like Fischberger’s Variety, Mamasita’s Tamales, Café Centro, and Café Corazon.

How it All Began…

The Riverwest Food Co-op was officially incorporated in February of 2001 and opened its doors that November. Several locations had been considered before a building was found.

Member Nancy Centz happened to walk into Hoke’s Sign Painting on the corner of Clarke and Fratney, and found out that Hoke Mizell was looking to close the business and sell the building. Members Vince Bushell and Paula Gelbke agreed to buy the building and rent it to the Co-op.

Paula, now the store’s merchandising manager, remembers that the day the building’s sale closed in October, 2000, members gathered at the store to celebrate; they hadn’t realized that Hoke had planned on doing the same thing. So both groups celebrated together.

Fun fact: if you look closely at some of the store’s shelving, you’ll notice it’s on wheels. That’s so that it could be pushed out to the sides to make room for parties (good luck trying that now).

In the early days, the board met weekly at the store. According to Clare Lewis, the board took up half the store and was involved in decisions as small as how many chips the store should stock. “Everyone was excited about a few dozen items,” she recalls.

The group raised funds for new equipment and maintenance by holding regular spaghetti dinners at Falcon Bowl.

“It’s because of the spaghetti dinners that I thought that this group was probably going to make it,” Carl Hedman remembers. “Riverwest people love a good meal.”

The store had much shorter hours in its early days. If a volunteer missed a shift, Wendy would sometimes show up at their front door.

Long-time member-volunteer Amelia Klem-Ostrud recalled making cookies one morning, “but I was out of butter. I called the Co-op and Wendy was there, so she let me in and sold me some butter.”

When the cafe opened in 2004, the menu included sandwiches like the ‘Sconny (cream cheese, cheese, and vegetables), and the Nutty Bunny (carrots, sprouts and peanut butter) in addition to the Garden and Trees and BBQ Tofu. The BBQ Tofu sandwich is still one of the cafe’s best selling dishes, just behind the Phamous Philly. Volunteer-member Theresa Kenney started making her Comfort Food Wednesday specials in 2006. Michelle Detloff and Michelle Jones formed a friendship while working together at the Café that blossomed into the cottage industry that became Mamasita’s Tamales.

This year, Riverwest Co-op will sell over 10,000 pounds of bananas and 5,000 pounds of avocados; the Cafe will have sold almost 3,000 chocolate chip cookies and 10,000 cups of coffee. These numbers were unimaginable ten years ago.

So what’s in store for the Riverwest Co-op’s next decade? Looking ahead over the next year, we hope to install a walk-in cooler behind the building that will give the cafe some much-needed storage space and make room in the store for more products in the refrigerator cases. The board will also be asking our members to consider expanding the Cafe into a full-fledged restaurant on the second floor of the building.

But before all that, we’re inviting all our friends and neighbors from the past decade to celebrate with us. Carl Hedman, the Co-op’s resident philosopher, believes that its success is “a testament to the young people of Riverwest. It wouldn’t exist today except for them. It’s because of them that I think the co-op will go another ten years.”

Another ten years of good food, good meals and good people. Won’t that be amazing?

The party is on Sunday, November 13, from 5-8 PM at Falcon Bowl. Cost is $15 for adults, $10 for kids 12 and up, and free for kids under 12. Please RSVP at the Co-op or via our website at riverwestcoop.org by November 7. Volunteer opportunities are available for those who cannot afford tickets.

 

If You Go:

Riverwest Co-op 10th Anniversary   •  Sunday, November 13, 5-8 PM  •  Falcon Bowl, 801 E Clarke St

Adults $15 Kids 12 and up $10