PLAIN — Some are retired and spend Wednesday afternoons playing Michigan rummy and kibitzing in the community center.
Others have day jobs at Kraemer Brothers Construction, Peoples Community Bank, Cedar Grove Cheese and Thrive, a Madison-based economic development agency that serves an eight county region. One works at Whole Foods in Madison and another is the marketing director at Culver’s Franchising Systems in Prairie du Sac.
Together, in varying roles, they’re working to insure Phil’s Foods, the village’s lone grocery store, remains a part of the economic and social fabric of the downtown here, a role it has played for over 100 years.
If they’re successful, the 6,400-square-foot store at the corner of Alma and Main streets will become a co-op known as Honey Creek Market.
“We have seen just an overwhelming response in this community to a co-op initiative,” said Carolyn Forde, the village’s library director and co-chairwoman of the co-op board. “The first reason I’m convinced it will work is that we have the will.”
Forde is accustomed to co-ops. She worked at the now defunct Mifflin Street Co-op in Madison while at UW-Madison and remains a member of the Willy Street Co-op.
A feasibility study has shown that a co-op can be an economic success in Plain, and more than 40 people have volunteered for various co-op committees.
More telling was an informational meeting on Dec. 19.
A blizzard was raging that night but more than 130 people crammed into the community center. About 200 people have pledged to join and 108 have actually paid the $75 for a single or $150 for a household membership.
Not bad for a village of 770 people that is also trying to raise $1.5 million to improve the community’s outdoor pool.
“We don’t want to lose our grocery store. It’s vital to the community,” said Elsie Haas, 78, a life-long resident of Plain. “We all have our fingers crossed.”
I stumbled last week upon Haas and six other women who had gathered to play cards at the community center, located in the same building as the library. All seven shop at Phil’s. Two of them worked there at some point in their lives, and four had already paid their co-op dues.
“There’s a lot of people in Plain that need that store,” said Carol Lins, 67. “I just feel it’s important.”
Without the grocery store, many would have to drive seven miles south to Spring Green to shop at Hometown Supermarket or travel 20 miles north to Reedsburg to buy groceries at Viking Village Foods or Reedsburg IGA.
Lew and Joy Bettinger have been trying to sell Phil’s since 2007. They both have other jobs but don’t want the store to disappear. Lew’s great grandfather bought into the store in 1918, and his father joined the business in 1948. Lew and Joy, who met at UW-Oshkosh, came on board in 1985.
For the past six years, Lew, 53, has worked full-time outside of the store, the last two years in purchasing at UW-Platteville. Joy works at the bank and does the books for the grocery store. They both work weekends at the store and stop in before and after work during the week. Daughter, Nicole, 26, manages the store and daughter Aly, 22, helps on Wednesdays. That’s when a truck arrives from Madison with fresh merchandise. Both are college graduates and grew up in the store but are looking for other jobs.
“We haven’t had to buy groceries anywhere else for 27 years so it will be quite a transition,” Joy Bettinger said. “But we’ve both been doing both jobs and we’re just exhausted.”
The economics also make more sense with a co-op.
“A small business in a small town for someone to make a living and a retirement off of is very hard,” Lew Bettinger said. “But if it just has to pay it’s own expenses, it can do that very easily.”
There are 31 grocery co-operatives in Wisconsin, according to Courtney Berner, an outreach specialist with the UW-Madison Center for Cooperatives. Most focus on natural foods and can take two to five years to get off the ground. Deerfield, Baraboo, Oshkosh and Green Bay are among the communities working on creating co-ops.
It’s likely Plain will beat all of them to the punch and has learned from the struggles and success of the Yahara River Co-op in Stoughton and others around the state.
The Plain effort was launched last July after Gene Dalhoff, then the executive director of the Sauk County Development Corporation, attended a cooperative business conference at UW-Madison. Dalhoff is now with Thrive.
“He got really jazzed up about co-ops and knew the Bettingers were trying to sell,” Berner said. “We had some meetings and then some more meetings. It moved pretty quickly.”
The proposal calls for the co-op to buy the equipment and inventory. In five years, the co-op would purchase the building from the Bettingers.
Of course rural areas are accustomed to co-ops. They can be used for dairy, electricity, credit unions, farm supplies and fuel. But the grocery co-op in Plain won’t be the same as the grocery co-ops in Madison, Viroqua, Gays Mills or Richland Center. It likely will offer much of what is already on the shelves and in the coolers and freezers. The search for a manager is under way.
“People here don’t care about bulk grains and that sort of stuff,” said Bob Wills, master cheesemaker at Cedar Grove Cheese and a member of the co-op board. “They care about having a grocery store. The key is going to be letting the community decide what they want and not have somebody come in who has a mindset that it has to be a certain way.”
And if the community has its say, that means the tiny but fresh salad bar will likely continue, breads and donuts will be freshly baked each day, and brand name canned goods, cereals, pasta and familiar soda and beer brands will remain. It will still be a place to buy a birthday card, order an anniversary cake and, for a freshman in high school, experience a first job.
This is also a store that not only delivers groceries to seniors but puts them away. For one customer who has trouble opening jars, the lids are loosened and the items put away in the refrigerator.
“I feel we’re a small version of a big store,” Lew Bettinger said.”This is not something you just walk away from easily. There’s a lot of family ties and a lot of memories.”