City Business

Outpost Natural Foods

How a tiny co-op on Kane Place grew into an organic colossus.

By - Mar 13th, 2014 09:08 am
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Outpost Natural Foods will be 44 years old in April. It opened in 1970 when a small group of food lovers and idealists created the Kane Place Food Co-op, located near the corner of N. Humboldt Ave. and E .Kane Pl.. That original building is no longer there, and the co-op soon relocated to Riverwest, first in a facility on E. Clarke Street and later to Locust Street, eventually settling on the Outpost name.

The exterior of Outpost Natural Foods on Capitol Drive.  Photo by Joe Kelly. March 4th, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

The exterior of Outpost Natural Foods on Capitol Drive.

Today, Outpost is something of an organic empire, employing 380 people at numerous locations: 100 E. Capitol Dr. and 2826 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. in Milwaukee, and at 7000 W. State Street in Wauwatosa. Outpost also has two Market Cafes, one in Milwaukee at Aurora Sinai Hospital (945 N. 12th Street) and one in Brown Deer at the Rite-Hite Family YMCA (9250 N. Green Bay Rd.). Next to come is a new store in Mequon at Mequon Rd. and Wauwatosa Rd. due to open this summer. What hasn’t changed is the founders’ original goal, to sell local, wholesome, natural and organic food.

A walk through the Capitol location reveals a hub of activity in a bright, colorful setting, with a dizzying array of products. Nearly any kind of fruit or vegetable is on display at one end of the store while the other end has a small deli counter serving various sandwiches, complete with a hot food bar in service during lunch and dinner hours during the week and from 11:00 to 7:00 on weekends. There is also an aisle boasting serve-your-own dry goods with myriad granolas, dried fruits, nuts and sweets. Outpost also carries a variety of natural, additive free bath products, vitamins, and herbal remedies for just about any common affliction.

While the USDA does not have a definition for the term “natural,” Outpost defines it to include only foods and products that don’t use artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or sweeteners. The co-op also carry organically grown products, meaning foods grown and cultivated without the use of synthetic chemicals at any point during the process of bringing it from farm to store.

True to the spirit of a co-op organization, Outpost sells shares of its business to anybody who wants to buy. This makes those buyers, in essence, co-owners of the store. In 1970 a share sold for only $2.50 or about $15.50 in today’s dollars; the current price of a full share in Outpost to $200, but of course you are buying a chunk of a much-bigger organization, with far more to offer members.

Outpost owners, over 18,000 strong today, get early bird coupons, exclusive sales on local goods, and 10 percent discounts on bulk items, among many other perks. Owners also get the opportunity to vote in board elections, giving them power to decide who manages their business.

Board elections take place every October. Every owner of Outpost (regardless of the number of shares owned) has an equal vote in determining who will serve on the Board of Directors, who in turn oversee the larger decisions and determine the policies of the co-op. Minutes of the board’s monthly meetings are available on Outpost’s website.

A natural outgrowth of Outpost’s philosophy is a commitment to sustainability, to running the business in a way that not only preserves but improves the environment. To that end, the co-op created the position of sustainability manager and hired Jessy Servi.

Servi has been with Outpost for a little over a year now and feels like she fits right in.

“I was in graduate school for business administration with a focus on sustainable management at the time I started,” she says. “It just seemed like a great opportunity.”

Among other things, Servi compiles “Sustainability Reports,” which are assembled in tandem with the Sustainable Food Trade Association.  These reports include a briefing of the co-op’s policies and principles on the sustainability of the business as well as data on specific metrics — from energy use to air emissions to governance and community engagement.  Last year’s report came out in March and this year is being finalized and should soon be available.

Outpost is a founding member of Local First Milwaukee, a collective of local, independent businesses that advocate and help to support and promote local business and has also partnered with Hunger Task Force, the Urban Ecology Center and The Milwaukee Food Council, among several others.

This kind of community orientation can also be seen in the co-op’s commitment to selling a wide range of locally produced goods (recognizable by a “Locally Grown” label, local being anywhere in the state). One of these local vendors is Tipi Produce, which happens to be run by one of Outpost’s original founders, Steve Pincus, and his wife Beth Kazmar, whose farm is located in Evansville, about a half hour south of Madison.

“We’re always exploring the possibilities surrounding what it means to have access to local food in the community, what we can source locally,” says Margaret Mittelstadt, Outpost’s Director of Community Relations.

“We’re always wondering: how can we grow our economy with regards to food issues and food production? But it is also about food security. With regards to the damage done by the recent droughts in California and elsewhere, we want to find ways we can possibly mitigate that on a local and regional level.”

All Outpost Natural Foods Co-op locations are open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The Market Cafes are open Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Aurora Sinai Hospital and 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. at Rite-Hite Family YMCA.

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