“I was concerned about the virus. I knew we had to do everything we could to keep my employees and our customers safe.”

Even before most Wisconsin businesses were ordered to shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus in March, Menomonie Market Food Co-op employees began enacting a series of changes intended to keep the store’s workers and customers safe.

As the contagious virus surfaced in the state, Crystal Halvorson, the general manager of the co-op in Menomonie, ordered alterations to the store’s operations to protect against COVID-19 infections while allowing shopping there to continue. 

Among the changes were installing plexiglass shields at the deli and customer checkout area; instituting a curbside pickup system; redesigning and significantly expanding the co-op’s online ordering system; reducing operating hours; mandating that store employees and customers wore face masks and were socially distanced; and setting up a rigorous sanitizing and cleaning schedule.

The store also allowed staff who needed to quarantine or protect themselves from the virus to use up to two weeks more of paid time off than what they had available, even before Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding was available for that purpose. Employees were allowed to work from home when possible, and all co-op events planned to occur at the store were cancelled. Promotional sale times were extended to discourage crowds.

“I was concerned about the virus,” Halvorson told UpNorthNews during a recent interview. “I knew we had to do everything we could to keep my employees and our customers safe. It was a lot of work. We were learning as we went. But it was something I felt we had to do.”

The co-op was recognized for its efforts earlier this month, when it was named one of the state’s top award winners in the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s “We’re All Innovating Contest.” The contest, open to businesses with 50 or fewer employees, recognized creative ways small businesses responded to challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Of the 1,226 businesses that entered, 231 were selected for recognition, with 17 chosen for top honors. Menomonie Market Food Co-op was named the winner of the Technology Innovation to Address COVID-19 Impacts on Businesses category (21 to 50 employees), one of three contest categories. 

In a news release recognizing award winners, Gov. Tony Evers praised the businesses for their hard work and ingenuity.  

“The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired businesses to find new ways to fight the virus, operate their businesses, and meet the needs of our community,” Evers said. “After looking at these winning projects, I’m truly in awe of these folks’ ingenuity, imagination, and creativity.”

Among the reasons the co-op was recognized was its transition from a traditional shopping model to a significantly expanded online sales and curbside pickup system, an effort to maintain business while protecting customers and patrons. 

The revised co-op website includes not only more products, Halvorson said, but provides shoppers with photos and accompanying information identifying whether items are locally produced, are organic, or are distinctive in other ways customers typically learned as they walked through store aisles. 

The innovative approach helped keep co-op workers’ jobs and shifted them from previous tasks such as working in the deli to efforts to improve customer service. That initiative allowed the store to maintain sales of locally produced items, enabling the co-op to continue to purchase products from small producers who rely on those sales for their livelihood, Halvorson said.

“It was important to us to be able to help our local producers stay in business during this economically challenging time,” she said.

This sanitizing station is among numerous efforts at Menomonie Food Market Co-op intended to protect store customers and employees from COVID-19. The co-op was recognized by Gov. Tony Evers for its innovative approach to dealing with challenges posed by the coronavirus. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

‘A lot of work’

Enacting COVID-19 protections was anything but easy, Halvorson said. Reworking the website required significant hours, she said, and coordinating the store’s various data systems to make it all work was challenging.

“It was a lot of work to bring all of these systems together,” Halvorson said. “It was only possible because of the great team I work with.”  

It also wasn’t cheap. The store spent more than $20,000 on a variety of changes to keep the contagious virus at bay, she said. The co-op received $17,250 for its award recognition.  

Taking those steps, especially at a time when many businesses in Menomonie, a city of about 16,000, weren’t being as stringent about enacting similar measures, was a gamble of sorts, Halvorson said. Because of the co-op business model, she used the investments of the store’s many owners to make those changes. 

“It was the owners’ wealth we were expending unexpectedly,” Halvorson said. “It felt kind of risky. We’ve never had to do anything like this, purchase PPE (personal protective equipment) or anything like that.”

Some residents in Dunn County, a mostly rural area in west-central Wisconsin about an hour west of Minneapolis-St. Paul, objected to such measures as face masks, social distancing and other actions such as reduced store capacities intended to prevent virus infections. Halvoroson said the co-op lost a few customers who felt strongly enough about the matter they stopped frequenting the store. 

But far more backed the stronger measures, Halvorson said. They told her they appreciated the fact she was trying to keep them from contracting the potentially deadly virus.

“Many customers expressed to us they felt more safe at the store, that they appreciated the steps we took” she said.

Menomonie residents Mary and Roger Marin are among them. The elderly couple have health issues and are appreciative of the co-op’s efforts to implement curbside pickup.

Mary Marin said she was initially apprehensive about shopping online, but the process has worked smoothly “and is really easy.”  

“To have them act so quickly to make shopping safe for us with a huge relief,” she said. “The co-op is one of the few places we go these days because of the [COVID-19] protections they have in place.” 

Menomonie Food Market Co-op and small businesses across Wisconsin and the US have faced challenges during the pandemic that continues into the new year. To help them keep afloat, the WEDC has spent more than $220 million in CARES Act funding to nearly 100,000 businesses through the state’s We’re All In initiative.            

Halvorson acknowledged fiscal challenges the co-op has faced, as well as the ongoing effort to keep staff and customers safe from COVID-19 as coronavirus cases continue. In the meantime she said she is grateful her business remains up and running, and appreciative of the state award.

“It feels really amazing to be recognized,” she said. “This was about protecting our staff and our customers, and doing what we could to continue to allow people to keep shopping here.”