You might think the days of the small neighborhood grocery are numbered, now that the Mifflin Street Co-op is gone and the national chain Trader Joe's has moved into a space formerly occupied by a local food store. But the Regent Market Cooperative, 2136 Regent St., is struggling to keep alive the tradition of the small, community-based store.
"We're aware of the competition we face," says general manager Jim Huberty. "People have choices of where they want to shop, and we need to keep ourselves among the choices."
Huberty can't say for certain how Mifflin's closing and Trader Joe's opening have affected sales so far. "It's really more anecdotal evidence right now," he says. "People tell us that they used to shop at Mifflin and want to continue to support local stores, and other people say that Trader Joe's is not meeting all of their needs."
The space currently occupied by the Regent Market has been a grocery store since 1924, when Carl E. Hommel Sr., a former dining car supervisor for the Ringling Bros. circus, joined his brothers in opening the Universal Grocery and Randall Market Meats. For many years the storefront housed a Super IGA, and the grocery was perhaps best known during its years under longtime owner Joe Heggestad. The co-op opened in 1998.
Keeping the Regent Market Cooperative financially afloat has been a challenge from the beginning. A drop in sales last year prompted a pledge drive to raise $40,000, which would provide the store with the operating capital to pay off some credit card debt and short-term loans. The drive ends in two weeks, and Huberty says the store is unlikely to reach its goal. But, he says, market employees are working to position the business to be less reliant on fund-raising.
"We are really focused on the business operations right now, finding ways to increase efficiency and to provide shoppers with what they need in the space available," says Huberty.
And that space is at a premium. At around 1,100 square feet, the Regent Market Cooperative is roughly one-eighth the size of the Willy Street Co-op, a store that has itself been looking to grow to meet customer needs. Willy Street employees have been working closely with Regent Market staff to provide support and advice as they move forward.
When the Mifflin co-op closed, the Regent Market began actively soliciting shoppers who had formerly done business there. Five housing co-ops have since established a relationship with the Regent Market. The market is also striving to develop more connections with local producers and growers as an active member of the Dane County Buy Local Initiative.
Despite the challenges facing a small store in a competitive grocery climate, Huberty is encouraged by the support the Regent Market has received from the community.
"We really are the neighborhood store in every sense of the phrase," says Huberty. "The neighborhood is important to us, and we are important to this Regent-area neighborhood. It isn't us versus them. It's us and them."