Mifflin St. Co-op to Close?

One of the student paper’s on the UW-Madison campus, The Daily Cardinal, ran a story about the potential closing of Madison’ s oldest grocery cooperative, Mifflin St. Co-op. The Capital Times also ran a story in which the end seems more certain.

I know that there will be as many opinions of why Mifflin failed as there are co-op members in Madison!  Suffice to say, they haven’t closed yet and may still find a way to overcome the huge obstacles that appear before them.

Others can give a more detailed history than I, but here is a general synopsis:

Founded at the hieght of the anti-war movement in 1968, Mifflin Street set up shop at the corner of Bassett Street and Mifflin Street–the heart of the student housing sector of the city. In addition to selling natural and organic foods long before it became trendy, the co-op also became a main meeting place of the area activists. In 1969, they sponsored a street dance that was attacked by the police. After that, the coop became most known for its annual Mifflin St. Block Party (with special brownies made for the occassion). In the early 1970’s, N. Bassett Street came within one vote of being renamed “Ho Chi Minh Trail” by the City Council and the corner is still known as Ho Chi Corners by some of the city’s cab drivers.

Mifflin’s success helped other co-ops get off the ground inlcuding: Williamson Street, WORT-FM, Union Cab a small group of housing coops for students, etc. It wasn’t so much that Mifflin started these other coops as they paved the way and made others believe that co-ops could work.

Of course, times do change. The City of Madison changed the rules on block party insurance which caused the Co-op to quit sponsoring them. The grocery industry changed dramatically in the late 1980’s moving towards bigger square footage spaces. Stores with Mifflin’s footprint either became convenience stores, coffee shops or other retailers.  At the same time, the students changed. The students who most identified with Mifflin grew up and moved out. The ones coming in were wealthier, trendier and more mainstream. In many ways, the Mifflin Street Co-op became the allegorical “Puff, the Magic Dragon“.

The 1990’s added another twist as major retailers started branding organics and natural foods. With the immense growth of Williamson Street Grocery cooperative on the east side and the arrival of Whole Foods Grocery on the west side, Mifflin was caught between two larger retailers offering the same and more. Added to this, many “members” of Mifflin Street chose to shop at Williamson. They kept their membership for nostaligic reasons, but didn’t financially support the cooperative.

For the last ten years, it seems to me (an outsider), that Mifflin has always been in a financial crisis. They aren’t closed yet, but they do need to take some serious steps. Maybe they should change their focus from groceries to something more fitting for their shop and what the market will support today.

Mifflin will likely join Burely as a cautionary tale of ignoring the changes in the market. While not capitalist, co-operatives are, after all, market driven economies. They need to pay attention to the changes and adapt to them. Ultimately, people choose do business with vendors and stores that supply what they want. Ideology only gets so many people in the door and only for so long. As witnessed by the many Mifflin members who show their card at Willy St., ideology is a poor form of customer loyalty program.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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