The Milwaukee co-op opened its fourth store this week; this one in Mequon.
The organization has come a long way since it took root in 1970. That's when a group of Milwaukee residents pooled their resources to purchase food they considered “wholesome and whole.” The new store was called the East Kane Street Food Co-op. Shares sold for $2.50 and volunteers staffed the store, which later changed its name to Outpost.
Several decades later, the store has grown to include branches around the metro area, and even market cafes in a downtown Milwaukee hospital and in a YMCA in Brown Deer.
When I visit, teams outside are still cleaning up and planting trees.
In the loading dock, store receiver Ryan Miracle and manager Tom Knueppel are admiring their new, gigantic green baler. They’re too excited to be quite certain who picks up the baled cardboard boxes after their contents have been removed and displayed on the store’s shelves.
Inside the store, where everything seems to gleam, Luis Santiago is giving café tables another once over. He’s brand new to the Outpost team – and seems excited to join the kitchen staff.
“It’s a brand new job for me and I’ve never worked in a kitchen. This is my final day of training,” Santiago says.
Outpost’s sustainability manager Jessy Servi strolls in my direction. She’s eager to talk about the storm water and energy saving strategies of the new Mequon structure.
“Energy is one of our largest consumers as a retailer, and so in this store, we have the opportunity to buy state-of-the-art energy efficient equipment - from LED lighting to our system that captures the heat produced by our refrigerated cases. We can reclaim and use that energy to heat our water,” Servi says.
Outside the store a massive rain garden system runs along the properties south and west sides. A Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District grant helped finance the project and another system that funnels rain from the rooftop.
“That water is stored in two underground cisterns and we’ll use it to water our plants and garden," Servi says.
MMSD also helped fund a project that captures and reuses water used inside the store. Customers fill up jugs of filtered drinking water. Servi says for every gallon customers tap, a gallon is normally lost.
“The water is being filtered through a reverse osmosis process. So now, the waste water is pumped to a holding tank that’s behind this wall. It’s mixed with city water and is used to flush our toilets,” Servi says.
She says sustainability goes beyond capturing and flushing water, it includes – when possible – re-purposing. The store footprint stands on what was once a house and barn. Those buildings were carefully deconstructed to pull out as many useable materials and artifacts as possible. Ladders found in the barn serve as display racks.
Servi says several trees had to be removed from the lot to make way for the store, so she looked for ways to make up for that loss. She points to the store’s north wall – paneled in various types and shades of wood.
”The wall you see is actually made up of repurposed urban wood," Servi says. "When trees need to come down, because of Emerald ash borer for example, instead of grinding them into wood chips, the City of Milwaukee has been directing trees to a mill and hopefully that wood goes to a higher use, and this is an example of that."
Servi not only approaches her job with a masters in business in hand; she’s also a certified permaculture designer; so says she’s super keen on what’s planted outside the store, besides the permeable pavement and massive rain garden.
“There are five pear trees that we’ll be able to pick from and use in our café; we’re going to be have a kitchen garden that is going to be managed by our staff. We’re going to be growing vegetables and herbs for the care. We have sixty feet of raspberries,” Servi says.
Outpost’s long-term vision is to source an ever-increasing amount from local and regional producers. Servi says that goal comes with a laundry list of criteria.
“The factors include organic, nutritional content, the environmental impact, the type of additive or natural preservative," she says. "There are a whole list of preservatives that we won’t allow in the store, even though customers like it, because members say ‘no, we don’t believe that preservative is safe’, so we’ll pull it off the shelf."
It’s the job of local purchasing specialist Zack Hepner to seek out local while balancing that weighty list.
He has his work cut out for him. Outpost’s goal is to source 75 percent of its total sales locally or at least regionally by the year 2022. Right now, the business has achieved 29 percent.
“It’s a constant struggle, but we’re making process. I’ll give you a great example. We just recently brought in a Greek yogurt made at Klondike Cheese Co. in Monroe, Wisconsin," Hepner says. "It’s less expensive, and I think a better quality and better tasting than some of the national brands. We sold in the neighborhood of 2,500 units of their yogurt in the April, and we only started selling it in April."
Hepner says its his job to balance the diverse interests of the co-op’s many members.
“We have over 18,000 members and we have customers who are just transitioning into natural food; we have people who are looking for inexpensive ways to eat better; then we also try to cater to our members who are passionate about organics; and then we have members who are passionate about local; and we have members who are passionate about ALL of those things, so we try to offer as broad a range of products as possible,’ Hepner says.
Right now, one of the products that’s on the way up is a libation served on tap in the store café called kombucha.
“It’s a fermented green or black tea and then you basically ferment it and its like a living digestive drink. People drink for all types of reasons – for vitality or as a digestive aid,” Hepner says.
The brew is crafted in Door County.
It’s delivered by the keg, which, Hepner says, cuts down on bottle waste - another Outpost mantra.
“I think I’m safe in saying, we’re the first grocery store in Wisconsin to offer kombucha on tap,” Hepner says.