Wirth Co-op is still closed; its future is unclear
Cirien Saadeh | Staff Reporter
If you stop by Wirth Co-op, chips and salsa, baking ingredients, and soda still line the shelves. The doors and shelves are covered in a thick layer of dust, but a sign in the window still says that all are welcome. The hours on the door are still listed. But the doors are locked and they have been for the past six months.
In April, Wirth Co-op abruptly announced that it would be temporarily closed due to Penn Ave construction and as an opportunity to provide advanced training for staff members. But, on the back end, decisions were being made about the future of the grocery store, which opened Oct. 2017 after a decade of community organizing and planning.
In the ten years of planning and dreaming, the Twin Cities grocery business underwent massive changes, as did the Northside. And at the same time as all of that was happening, there were internal challenges that forced the co-op to temporarily shut its doors: the co-op was having trouble finding its way, finances were a mess, it was draining money due to poor management, sales projections were way off, and some members were feeling lost in the shuffle and not spending their dollars at the co-op.
Wirth Co-op could not be reached for comment for this story. The phone line has been disconnected and emails were sent back as “undeliverable.” Efforts to reach most board members, and co-op staff, were also unsuccessful.
Kristel Porter, Executive Director of the Cleveland Neighborhood Association (CNA), is a longtime member of the co-op. She served on its board and as a member of two different hiring committees, including the committee which interviewed former General Manager Winston Bell. She worked for the co-op part-time doing marketing, until they could not pay her anymore in early 2018.
Though Porter has no longer held an official role with the co-op, the co-op’s board chair asked her to come back to the organization this year and consult on accounting, filing, and financing, as Porter had experience doing so through her role with the CNA. According to Porter, the Board wanted her to step in and ensure that the co-op’s accounting was happening correctly. Porter, alongside Snow Aukema, the co-op’s Assistant Manager at that time, were horrified by what they found. Eventually Bell was let go and Aukema was made General Manager in order to try and get the business back on track.
“When me and Snow got done looking over everything, we were completely appalled over everything that was happening, so we brought it to the board immediately. We said that Bell had basically almost drained the bank account, and we recommended that he be let go,” said Porter. “What hurts me is this was going on for six months, and it should have been caught. I don’t know who was responsible for this. Co-ops should have checks and balances. Is everyone responsible? Maybe. We ended up almost losing something that could have been amazing,” she said.
According to Porter, the co-op’s finances were a mess. Filing was not occurring or was not occurring correctly. The accountant was not getting the full-picture. Bell was double purchasing products accidentally and intentionally. Bell could not be reached for comment.
“Our Finance Committee Chair John Flory was working with Winston around management issues. The whole board was demanding reports and information,” said Caprini.
Still, these were only some of the only problems facing the co-op. According to Porter and Devean George, landlord for the co-op’s building, Wirth Co-op’s Board of Directors were also paying back bank loans at a rate that the store’s sales could not meet. According to Porter, the store’s sales projections were $100,000 a month, while the store’s actual sales rarely topped $30,000 a month.
According to Kimberly Caprini, a co-op Board member, members were not doing a decent job of supporting the co-op and, at the same time, the co-op was not serving the communities Caprini and others hoped it would serve.
“We needed the members to show up, and they weren’t,” said Caprini.
Aukema left Wirth Co-op in May when the co-op’s hiatus extended past the few weeks originally projected. Aukema currently works for another grocery business and has sixteen years experience in the field.
“The entire grocery climate is changing. By the time Wirth Co-op had opened, it was facing challenges that the entire field is facing. It’s an impossible feat,” said Aukema, “We all tried everything we could to make it work.”
Despite the challenges, it may not be the end for Wirth Co-op. When the co-op announced its temporary hiatus, they committed to working with the Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON), a Northside economic development agency and small business incubator. Attempts to reach NEON were largely unsuccessful, but NEON Business Advisor D’Wayne Morris did note that NEON has made recommendations to the co-op’s board, which he believes have been taken to the co-op’s financial investors. According to Caprini, NEON has also done research into other grocery store models that Wirth Co-op can model it self after, including The People’s Community Market.
Caprini would also like to see the co-op refocus its efforts on its immediate neighbors: the surrounding 25-block radius and residents in the apartment complex which houses the co-op.
“It should have been more like a grocery store, like the People’s Community Market in Oakland, that people will utilize and then we can grow from there,” said Caprini. The People’s Community Market is now known as the Community Food Store. The venture is a community-focused grocery store which sells shareholder credits to community members in an effort to build community health and wealth.
According to George, the co-op is an important community resource, and he doesn’t want to see it leave his building. George has worked with the co-op to set deadlines for it to get caught up on rent and to finish organizing its finances.
Porter says board elections need to take place soon. “An election has to happen. Members need to pressure the board to hold elections since one has not been held yet this year,” said Porter.
Caprini, who is running for an at large seat on the Minneapolis Public School board, will be stepping down from the Wirth board during the upcoming Wirth Coop board elections, because of her busy schedule and other community commitments. A date will be chosen for the board meeting and announced soon. It will likely be held in November.