Get to Know the Eau Claire Food Co-op
From the outside looking in, merging with Just Local Food Co-op in Eau Claire may seem like a new idea or a concept that was born out of necessity. But in reality, our co-ops have been collaborating in one way or another for many years; timing just hasn’t been on our side to connect on a deeper level and pool our resources until now. Our histories even mirror each other in a lot of ways, and our staff has been intertwined since JLF first began in the early 2000s.
Just Local Food Co-op got its start as a buyer’s club made up of just a few people who volunteered their time and wanted to make a difference in the community. They incorporated as a worker cooperative and began by delivering milk from Crystal Ball Farms door-to-door in a series of vehicles that have been lovingly called cartoon-ish, but they got the job done! JLF then assembled an informal board known as “the collective” and secured a spot at the Eau Claire Downtown Farmer’s Market. During this time, Crystal Halvorson, who was a founding member of Just Local Food Co-op along with Jordan Wolfe, JLF’s Merchandise Manager to this day, became the General Manager of Menomonie Market Food Co-op.
Just Local Food Co-op’s time at the farmer’s market introduced them to local growers and farmers who were ready for more than a once-a-week market during the growing season. It became clear that Eau Claire needed a store focused on local growers and producers, so in 2005, JLF opened its first storefront on Gibson Street. Similar to Menomonie Market’s first location, it was small and imperfect but a great place to start. Unfortunately, this location was short-lived due to an electrical fire that destroyed most of the products and equipment. They moved their operations to First Avenue until 2008 when they relocated to their current home on the corner of South Farwell Street.
Since then, JLF has squeezed an impressive selection of products into just 1,200 square feet, grown sales to over $2M per year, and increased their number of owners to 1,500. JLF has also become especially synonymous with one value thanks to the hard work of its staff: a fierce support for local farmers and producers. They have championed the local food system in Eau Claire and, as former Meat Buyer Nik Novak put it, have turned JLF into “a market for farmers who can’t be at market.”
Both of our co-ops have unique strengths that complement one another well, so naturally the conversation of merging came up more than once over the years. In all of those instances, one of us wasn’t ready, and we only wanted to merge if it would be equally beneficial for both stores. Then in early 2020 right before the start of the pandemic, JLF lost key administrative staff, so collaboration was placed on the table again. This time, experience and timing were on our side. With Menomonie Market financially stable after expanding six years ago and Just Local Food bursting at the seams, our boards knew we could do more together. And now that both ownerships have voted in favor of merger, a collaboration over fifteen years in the making has finally come full circle.
Merging our businesses into one co-op brings us so many new opportunities. Our staff at both stores is motivated and ready for the challenges that merger will bring. We’re also excited to no longer be seen as competitors and to instead be able to work together on shared goals that will help us better support our community, offer lower prices, increase local giving, and advocate for justly-produced and locally-sourced foods.
Cheers to our new chapter of cooperation!
This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of our bi-monthly newsletter, The Morsel. If you’d like to read more stories like this one and stay up to date on the latest co-op news and events, pick up a print copy in-store on your next grocery run or find more news on our website here.