Delayed but undaunted, the Crow Wing Food Co-op’s vision for a modern facility to serve as a community hub and add to Brainerd’s downtown destinations begins in March.
Following a soft opening this weekend, the co-op’s first official day with its full hours of operation starts Monday, March 1.
After winning the final Destination Downtown Business Challenge in the fall of 2019, the co-op proceeded with fundraising and organizing the detailed plans into a full construction project. Then came 2020.
“We worked through a construction project and renovation project and purchasing big equipment through a pandemic,” said Jennifer Jacquot-DeVries, now co-op board president, in a phone interview Thursday. Jacquot-DeVries served as the capital campaign chair for the project. She also put together the business plan for the grassroots business contest where her grant-writing experience and skills came in as an asset. The growth and spark to seek a new version of itself was assisted by a changing understanding and connection of farm to table, an emphasis on local growers and producers, and a broader understanding of what co-ops provide. Jacquot-DeVries said that greater understanding helped the project succeed.
What shoppers will see upon entering is a perhaps more familiar experience in a grocery store and deli, just on a smaller scale. Shoppers can find items that fit a special dietary need, can buy in bulk, and can connect with locally grown food and support other small businesses. Jacquot-DeVries said staff members are available to answer any questions.
On a history note, the co-op worked to preserve the historic marble floor believed to have been part of the building since its early days as a bank.
The co-op will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
At the deli, expect a smaller menu to start but one with variety — soup, salads, sandwiches and a made-to-order smoothie bar. The co-op is also carrying freshly made, local, organic fresh juices from Just Juice, a local juicing company. In addition to the made-to-order items, there will be grab and go bottled smoothies and deli foods. The focus remains on fresh and local, such as turkey sandwiches coming from Minnesota grown turkeys.The co-op is continuing to work to establish relationships with more local growers and farmers. The expanded freezer section allows them to bring in more locally raised meat products. The co-op has pork, beef and chicken. It also carries wild caught salmon from a regional company.
Jacquot-DeVries said they want to bring back the downtown farmers market and play a role in helping maintain it in downtown.
There are a lot of plans in the near future with sidewalk seating and opportunities for inside seating as the pandemic eases.
Beyond the pandemic, the co-op’s construction project was also affected by the wildfires out West, delaying materials, and the trade war made it difficult to import some large equipment. But the group was determined and found encouragement in community support.
They didn’t raise the full amount of money they hoped for to purchase all the equipment but they’ve made do with equipment from the old store on Washington Street, used items from a co-op in North Dakota that closed and through working with a co-op in Wadena. They have grocery shelving, an updated checkout with scanners. They were able to get their big ticket items such as the giant walk-in cooler/freezer with backloading shelves, which Jacquot-DeVries described as a major upgrade.
The co-op employs about 10 people and is still looking for a deli lead position. Jacquot-DeVries said hiring Angie Fox last summer to serve as the manager helped carry them over the finish line.
“She has done tremendous work and the rest of our staff, too,” Jacquot-DeVries said, adding co-op members and board members also volunteered. “It's just been so fun to see everyone involved and lend a hand to make it happen.”
The work to submit a business plan for the Destination Downtown contest began in the summer of 2019.
“Goodness, it's been 14 months since then since until now, and here we’re opening our doors, but you know, good things come to those who wait,” Jacquot-DeVries said, adding it’s been a fun journey.
“It's been a really fun process. I'm not a business person myself. So to open a store is not something I've ever done before. But we've been through it, you know, all the way through this journey from start to finish.”
The co-op has been part of the community since 1979. It started as a buying club as local families were looking for a better way to access items like whole flour and whole grains that weren’t readily available at every grocery store. They eventually moved into a small storefront on Washington Street and then to the larger store on the corner of Washington and South Eighth Street.
Anyone can be a member of the co-op with the perks of membership but shoppers do not have to be members. Lifetime memberships are $150, which can be paid in $10 installments. Members get 5% off one full shopping trip per month and a 10% discount on special orders and are able to serve on the board of directors to have a direct say in the co-op’s future.
Destination Downtown winner
Crow Wing Food Co-op was the people’s choice for the final Destination Downtown Business Challenge in 2019. The vision for the updated co-op included appealing to local residents, attracting tourists and providing delicious, healthy, local food to the community and to bring the community together.
The co-op grand prize win of a package worth $65,000 came after 9,000 votes were cast to pick the winner from the final three. The third Destination Downtown Business Challenge was the first to incorporate the public voting participation. The Crow Wing Food Co-op proposed a modern and expanded grocery store with convenient ready-to-eat healthy food options that would be grab-and-go with sandwiches, salads, soups and coffee. The member-owned co-op planned a mini cafe and smoothie bar along an eye toward future plans for a full kitchen so they can host cooking classes based on food at the co-op.
Locations were scouted for the co-op relocation and expansion before the final destination of the former Hockey House and Downtown Art and Frame building was finalized. The co-op signed a 10-year lease for the Laurel Street building in downtown Brainerd. The building is owned by Rhonda and Brian Smith, who were behind the Art and Frame business and formerly the Bead Box.
For Jacquot-DeVries, the ability to be in downtown Brainerd with the other Destination Downtown winners and contestants, amid the shops that have made downtown a home for decades is a special opportunity. She said it’s a way to play a role in adding to that downtown square — once the busiest place in the city — and bring people there on a regular basis.
“So we definitely are grateful for that coalition and really hope to help continue building on what they've done already,” Jacquot-DeVries said.