The Oneota Community Food Co-op is purchasing the building that adjoins it to the east to meet its growing needs, including a new kitchen classroom.
The Co-op Board authorized the action during a meeting Thursday night, and Board President Steve McCargar and Secretary Deneb Woods signed a real estate contract Friday, according to Co-op General Manager David Lester. Craig and Ellen Cutting of Decorah own the building, and the Co-op will take possession Jan. 2.
Half of the building at 310 W. Water St. housed a former nail salon, and the other half is currently the office of Prudential Insurance. The Co-op, 312 W. Water St., is currently renting the former nail salon space, which is being renovated into the new classroom, in addition to an office for marketing.
“We are excited to create a kitchen classroom where we are able to teach up to 40 students and offer street-level access,” Lester said.
Classes have been taught in a space in the Co-op’s basement that can only accommodate eight students at a time. The Co-op also provides classes at off-site locations such as Luther College, local schools and various work sites.
“Classroom attendance keeps growing at about 200 percent a year,” Lester commented.
In 2013, the Co-op offered 92 classes – 67 in the Co-op’s basement classroom and 25 “off site.” There were 769 participants.
Earlier, classes that were high ly specialized, weren’t so popular. That changed, Lester said, once Co-op Education and Outreach Coordinator Johanna Bergan introduced her “How to Boil Water” series. The fundamental classes covered topics such as how to cook with whole foods, roast a squash or make tomato sauce.
“They (the classes) really took off. There’s a lot of need to learn basic cooking techniques,” Lester said.
With a new classroom, Lester said he sees many opportunities for education, not only from Co-op staff and members, but also local chefs.
“It’s part of our effort to raise more awareness of the abundance and high quality of local foods from our local producers,” Lester said.
All Co-op classes are open to the public.
Connect the space
Once the Co-op takes ownership, a consultant will be hired to help plan what can be done with the rest of the building.
“Our grand vision is to connect the two buildings and open the wall,” Lester said.
The Co-op’s Water Street Café deli and seating area will likely be expanded, and the renovated space might include a meat counter with a larger local meat selection. It also could include offices that would free up space in the existing Co-op for expanded coolers and freezers, Lester said.
The Co-op has experienced double-digit sales growth over the past three years and membership has grown to more than 4,400, the general manager reported. Since moving and expanding at the current location, more than 1,500 new members have joined. The Oneota Community Food Co-op is a cooperatively-owned grocery store specializing in organic, local and sustainably produced products since 1974. It has 49 full and part-time employees, and the expansion could add five to eight new positions.
“We see new opportunities for positions in the café, grocery department and probably some administration as well,” Lester said.
“Major renovations” could begin late spring or early summer next year. The kitchen classroom could be in operation within two years, he said. Lester hopes its walls will be mostly glass, making it a “very visible part of the Co-op.”
The Co-op is a member of the National Cooperative Grocers Association, which can provide technical assistance throughout the expansion and “make sure we expand with the right business pieces,” Lester said.
Local contractors will be hired for the project, he added.
“We know a big area of growth for us is the café and deli and also the meat department – that will have a lot of the focus, along with the classroom,” Lester said.