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Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013

Outpost Natural Foods

Milwaukee’s Organic Pioneer

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Tired of politics and business as usual, a 22-year-old Steve Pincus became the first manager of the East Kane Street Food Co-op, the roots of the now-familiar Outpost Natural Foods. It was 1970 when Pincus, who now owns the Tipi Produce farm in Evansville, Wis., was introduced to the mission and message of consumer co-ops. “It was all about taking charge of our food supply and knowing where our food was coming from and it sounded phenomenal,” Pincus recalls. “I wanted to do something productive, and I felt that organizing around food and rejecting the standard eating habits of America was something productive. At the time there was no organic certification and most people didn’t know about natural foods. We were rallying around what we thought was right.”

The growth of Outpost proves that many Milwaukeeans agreed. Ten years after opening its Capitol Drive location (100 E. Capitol Drive) and broadening its customer base, Outpost debuted its 14,000-square-foot Wauwatosa store (7000 W. State St.) in 2000, followed by its Bay View location (2826 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.) in 2005. In 2012, Outpost launched the Outpost Market Café kiosk at Aurora Sinai Medical Center (945 N. 12th St.). According to Outpost community relations director Margaret Mittelstadt, the project began when Aurora Sinai initiated an employee wellness program. Though the partnership began as a means to provide nutritional advice and guidance, Outpost soon started selling organic products and produce in the Aurora Sinai Medical Center cafeteria. The Market Café seemed like the next logical step, just as the co-op’s current plans to open a Mequon location appear almost certain.

 

Representing a Different Way of Doing Business

It shouldn’t be surprising that during this time of economic hardship, increased corporate mistrust and mounting food-safety concerns, food cooperatives have increased in numbers nationwide. “People are making the connection that Wall Street is fine and good until something goes wrong,” says Mittelstadt, who estimates that in terms of sales, Outpost is now the fourth largest cooperatively owned natural foods grocery in the United States. “People have lost trust in the larger corporate structure. At Outpost, we talk about our owners and we talk about what we’re doing next, rather than what we can do to keep getting bigger. We stay focused on helping the consumers and as a result the co-op provides better transparency and that is what the public is looking for.”

In addition to Outpost’s business structure, this openness has been maintained and protected, in part, by the co-op’s continued involvement with neighborhood organizations. Outpost has established longstanding relationships with the Urban Ecology Center, Hunger Task Force, Midwest Renewable Energy Association, Walnut Way Conservation Corporation and various other nonprofit organizations through its “Outpost Community Partners” program. Each selected organization receives a donation, as well as a percentage of the interest accumulated from Outpost’s Cooperative Community Fund, a fund that invests both in the development of cooperatives and the advancement of local nonprofit organizations. Groundwork Milwaukee, Fondy Food Center, Repairers of the Breach and Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful have been chosen as Outpost’s 2013 Community Partners.

The centering influence of these partnerships, in addition to Outpost’s active customer ownership, have prevented the cooperative from “loosing touch” and “becoming just like any other business,” explains Outpost general manager Pam Mehnert. “If you don’t pay attention, it’s easy to drift away from your values,” Mehnert continues. “When we moved to our Capitol Drive location, people would say that we were getting too big, but what I think we’ve done since that time is hold truer to our values. Our mission today is even stronger than what we had then—to have healthy, diverse and sustainable communities. We are representing a different way of doing business. It really is about taking the growth and turning it into how we can help our community. That is what we keep hearing from our owners and from our employees.  No matter how big we get, we just have to keep thinking small.”

Emily Patti is a freelance writer living in Milwaukee. She writes about food and culture for the Shepherd Express.

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