By Craig Moorhead
The Caledonia Argus
Just what is a full-service co-op grocery store?
“We’re community owned,” Root River Market Co-op manager Eric Hill said recently. “We’re a full grocery store. We do produce, meat, frozen foods, and some general merchandise in a relatively small square footage... And we help carry your groceries out to the car.”
The market is located at 119 E. Cedar St. in Houston, Minnesota.
“Shares are $100 for a lifetime membership, and members get discounts on Mondays...” Hill added. Members can get 5% off on smaller orders, and 10% off on purchases totaling $100 or more.
“The store closed around 20 years ago, and they re-opened it with community support,” the manager stated. “One of the challenges is community awareness, and I think last year you can tell by the sales that the market was important to the community during the pandemic, and the lock-down. It was here to serve the entire community, and that’s the challenge, to keep it here.
“We make deliveries to the nursing home, and delivery to a few other house settings. We participate in the SNAP program and the WIC program. And some local businesses use us to bring them some of their products, which we appreciate.”
Numerous youngsters from the Houston area have also landed first jobs at the Root River Market, which is a valuable experience, Hill noted. And core employees who have stayed on for years have kept the grocery going and “taken care of the place,” the manager said.
Ellyn Baumann of the Root River Market board of directors reports the store was originally opened by Pat “Red” Longmire of Spring Grove, but closed in 1998. The following year, a group of local citizens organized around an attempt to form a grocery cooperative at the site, naming themselves the “Root River Market Group.” Fundraisers ensued, fueled by support from local businesses and individuals, and the effort would eventually bear fruit after the City of Houston’s EDA and City Council supported the idea..
Baumann also writes that “At the Root River Market’s 1st Annual Meeting on Saturday, May 19, 2001, co-op member Colleen Tracy said, “The co-op is like my favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz. We went far and wide, looking for someone to run a grocery store for Houston, and it turned out that the courage, brains and heart were right here in our own backyard.’”
The store continues to accept new members, but no membership is needed to shop at the Root River Market Co-op. The market also has an awards program that everyone who shops there – both members and non-members – can participate in. Jan. 27 is the anniversary of the original grand opening, and will mark the start of a new membership drive in 2022.
“I’ve only been here a little while, but the market faces the same challenges that any small, independent community owned business faces today,” Hill said. “We’re out-sized and over-bid by any corporate entity around us, so it’s a challenge.
“I grew up around Eau Claire, and basically I’ve done (managed) food and beverage, hotels and travel, primarily, all of my adult life.”
The manager also said he’s worked in a variety of locations all over the U.S., including Austin (Texas), Colorado, Nantucket, San Diego, and closer places such as the Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin areas. He eventually married a woman who hails from Rushford, Minnesota, and was drawn to southeastern Minnesota.
“I love it here, it’s beautiful,” he said. “Our daughter graduated high school recently, and is going to the University of Minnesota...”
After experiencing life in larger cities, Hill also said he appreciates small-town living. “The service here is personalized,” he noted. “We work on trying to carry things that people ask for and need.
“I’ve lost my anonymity. It’s something I enjoy. It’s just about getting to know everybody, and that sense of community that we have... Where we used to live (near Delafield, Wisconsin) we only knew one of our neighbors. Here, you know all your neighbors. It’s a lot different.”