River Market gets a remodel, begins a $1 million project

BY ELISSA COTTLE – GAZETTE COLUMNIST

How do you like your burrito? The River Market Community Co-op in downtown Stillwater plans to serve up delectable options in its new burrito bar coming late summer – a highlight of the co-op’s $1 million wall-to-wall remodel.

The deli inside the co-op also will add a salad bar and more hot food-to-go items. Or why rush home?  Sit at one of the deli tables to enjoy your custom burrito, salad, hot or cold sandwiches, smoothies, soups and other goodies in the company of real-food lovers who have been swarming River Market, on Main Street north of Myrtle, in higher and higher numbers. “The deli will look completely new and exciting!” says Mead Stone, the co-op’s general manager.

The deli is the “driving force” of the remodel, but the whole co-op will get a make-over, says Matt Shamp of Carlson-LaVine Inc., the project’s general contractor. “We have our hands in every area,” he said. “The whole staff at River Market has been great to work with. It’s going to be fun.”

River Market shoppers will first notice a transformation in the produce department. It will be roomier and the walls will have a “curved feel” in the layout, said Shamp. Next, the bulk food department will get new cases and shelving. The dropped ceiling over produce and bulk will be removed to give both departments more height and an open feel.

Then the check-out area will get new cash registers and the area for the four check-out lanes will become more spacious due to a realignment of the register stations. The hanging wooden waves over the check-out area will be removed, and the “health and body” products department will get new, lower-profile shelving, allowing shoppers to easily see across the entire store, said Stone.

Next, the frozen food cases will be moved toward the riverside of the store, allowing more room for the deli upgrades, which will be the remodel finale. New, more energy-efficient lights, newly designed department signs, and fresh paint in blues and browns, accented with cherrywood, will make the whole store “pop,” says Stone. He noted the mural on the south wall, depicting a collage of colorful foods, will remain untouched.

River Market is a cooperatively owned business, which means its “owners” are 4,500 shoppers, so far, who have bought $80 of stock to join the co-op. Owners are entitled to a monthly 5 percent discount on their purchases (owners age 60 or older get a 10 percent discount every Tuesday) and an opportunity to run and vote in the annual elections of the nine-member board of directors.

The board hires and oversees the work of the general manager, as well as monitors River Market policies created by the board to ensure the co-op is abiding cooperative business principles, including inclusive membership, democratic control, membership economic participation, honesty, concern for community, among others. River Market also is committed to selling fresh, local, healthy food that is unaltered or minimally processed with safe ingredients.

This year the River Market Board unanimously approved Stone’s remodel proposal, with costs up to $1.1 million. So far, $193,100has been raised among 95 co-op owners who bought investment shares of $500 or more. Remodel share holders may earn an annual dividend of 5 percent. The co-op hopes to raise at least $250,000 from its ownership. River Market owner-members interested in investing may inquire at the co-op, email invest@rivermarket.coop, or call 651-439-0366.

Besides owner investment shares, the remodel costs are coming from about $205,000 in River Market’s savings, and a $550,000 loan from Lake Elmo Bank.

River Market started 37 years ago when a small group bought an ad in the Stillwater Gazette seeking people interested in starting a food co-op. Fifty people showed up to meeting and a year later, in 1978, the first store opened in a basement on Second Street downtown Stillwater with 100 member-owners. The store was run by all volunteers, with no cash register and sales recorded by hand. The co-op moved to an 1,800-square-foot space on William at Mulberry in 1981. In 2000, River Market set up shop in its current location, 221 N. Main St., in 7,700 square feet. The property is owned by Tom Wortman of the Tremar corporation, based in Stillwater.

In the past six years River Market yearly customer visits have increased, reaching nearly 186,000. The co-op’s 2013 fiscal year rung up more than $5.5 million in sales, a 7 percent increase from the previous year. After the remodel, planned to be done in August, Stone says River Market is projected, conservatively, to hit $6.6 million in fiscal year sales, a 15 percent jump.

The River Market remodel was designed by Bob Gorski of Robert Gorski & Associates based in Eden Prairie, who designed the Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis.

Besides Matt Shamp, River Market remodel project managers from Carlson-LaVine are Thomas Shamp, Matt’s father and the company’s owner, and Steve Loahr. Carlson-LaVine specializes in remodels and construction for grocery stores and health care facilities – both requiring special consideration to keep products safe for consumption or use. The company has done remodel work for Hampden Park Co-op in St. Paul and Lakewinds Natural Foods Co-op in Chanhassen. Other contractors for the River Market project include South-Town Refrigeration based in Brooklyn Park and Corporate Mechanical based in New Hope.

Elissa Cottle is a Stillwater-based freelance writer for businesses and news media. She writes a monthly column on Stillwater area business for the Gazette. Please contact her with any ideas for future columns, including new business, business changes, or business trends at elissa.gwen@gmail.com.

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