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People Fuel the Little Market That Could

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
People Fuel the Little Market That Could

Jon Ihde,the singing butcher

When customers walk into Regent Market Co-op in Madison, Wis., they?re often greeted by the singing butcher, Jon Ihde. ?Melancholy Baby? and ?Feelings? are two of his favorites. Ihde?s singing is just a small part of the charm that this miniature-sized co-op exudes, and one of the many reasons that neighborhood residents have worked throughout the years to keep the market alive.

?This is one of the ties that bind in this neighborhood,? says store manager Jim Huberty. ?This store is wedded to the neighborhood, and the neighborhood decides whether or not the store exists.?

The 1,100-square-foot space, nicknamed ?the little market that could? by locals, has endured many changes in its 80-year history. In 1924, it first opened as the Universal Grocery and Randall Market Meats, part of the Universal grocery chain owned by Carl E. Hommel, a former dining car supervisor for the Ringling Brothers Circus train. After going through several incarnations—all as groceries—the market was bought by Joe Heggestad, who owned it from 1974 to 1995. Some people still call the store ?Joe?s.?

When Heggestad retired, the fate of the market became unclear, and the space remained vacant for some time. But in 1998, more than 1,000 neighbors banded together to save the store and create the co-op.

At the remodeling celebrationlast spring (from left)Diane Cieslewicz, board memberand event organizer Mary Ellen Volbrecht,Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz,Co-op Manager Jim Hubertyand Co-op Board President Mary Rouse

In the last two years, the store has undergone a major revamp. New floors and display stands have been installed, and antiquated deli equipment was replaced. But behind the shiny newness, the store?s foundation of old-fashioned customer service remains.

?People like the store because of how it feels when they walk in,? says Huberty. ?It?s very old-school.?

Space is tight at Regent, which for many stores could prove detrimental. Instead, the narrow aisles of tall shelves filled with neatly arranged products lend the store a cozy, homegrown feel. The produce section offers a surprising diversity of organic vegetables and produce. In the back of the store, a full-service deli—the one with singing butcher Ihde—offers a huge variety of meats, cheeses, sandwiches and comfort food.

More important, though, than Regent?s welcoming layout is its friendly approach toward customers, who are always warmly greeted when they come in, many by their first name. Because the store is small and member-owned, staff can more easily meet the needs of individual patrons. Many older members, for example, who have shopped at the store for years have come to depend on its delivery service. Once, says Huberty, an older customer wanted Ensure, a product the store doesn?t carry. So Huberty went to a pharmacy and got it himself, delivering it to the woman along with the rest of her groceries.

Huberty?s dedication to the shopping needs and wants of his customers has resulted in a quirky blend of both natural and conventional products. ?We try to carry a balanced mix. Our shoppers are our bloodlines to what we carry,? he says. ?Some want Spam in a can. Some want organic broccoli and organic meat.? So Regent Market carries both. Huberty notes, though, that more organic foods are being requested. Currently, 60 percent of the store?s produce and meat is organic, but he sees that number increasing dramatically in the next couple of years. ?People don?t want turkeys that are injected and have their beaks cut off,? he says. ?You can taste the difference yourself.?

Staffer Barnaby Rintzat the register

Regent Market takes advantage of the locally produced meats, cheeses and produce that Wisconsin is famous for. For Huberty, buying from nearby farms is a no-brainer. ?People are getting more information about what they eat and where it comes from,? he says. ?We don?t have to shove it down their throats. They want more local food.? The store?s local offerings include organic mushrooms from Schickert?s Mushrooms in Campbellsport; Wisconsin cheddar from Vern?s, a dairy in Chilton; and free-range pork from Willow Creek Farms in Logansville.

The co-op doesn?t advertise at all, but instead relies on word of mouth and community involvement to bring in business. Located on a busy street, the store pulls in a lot of foot traffic. But its main customer base is made up of more than 1,000 members, and Huberty says he couldn?t ask for better advertisers. The store is also involved in the neighborhood, taking part in events like the annual Fourth of July neighborhood party and Madison?s Food for Thought Festival, a culinary extravaganza that celebrates and raises awareness of locally produced food.

Produce Manager Peter Balistrerirestocking his section

Huberty readily admits that the store?s biggest challenge is its small space. While he and the co-op?s board of directors occasionally contemplate expanding the co-op?s product line, the store simply does not have any more room. The only option is to move to another location. But co-op members are just not interested in a new space, says Huberty. They like their little market that could just the way it is. ?People are married to this spot, so expansion would be difficult,? he says. ?This space has become far more than just a food source.?

O?rya Hyde-Keller is a Bethlehem, Pa.-based free-lance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 4/p. 66

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