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Revenue issues influence Kandi Cupboard closure

Lucas Floren, an employee at Kandi Cupboard, consolidates merchandise Friday at the downtown Willmar store. A six-member board has voted to close the doors at Kandi Cupboard at the end of next month. The store had been struggling financially for a number of years and had a loss this year. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Kandi Cupboard, a food cooperative started nearly 30 years ago to sell bulk, unprocessed and organic foods at reasonable cost, will be closing July 30. The decision to close the downtown store was unanimously approved by the board of directors during the co-op's annual meeting this week.

The store had been struggling financially for a number of years and had a loss this year, although it was not a huge loss, said store manager Jan Dworshak. She said the six-member board voted to close before things worsened.

"I was hoping we would get through another year to wait for the economy to turn around, and I really truly think that we could have,'' said Dworshak. "We have the same amount of people coming in, but they are just not spending as much.''

Also, Dworshak said the downtown location is a big drawback.

"Downtown is really getting slow. It's actually slowly dying and it's not a destination operation here.

"The No. 1 thing in business is location, location, location. When the store opened in March 1981, downtown was doing really well and over the years it has dwindled. We just didn't move out of downtown,'' she said.

Dworshak, who has been manager since October 2008, brought in new products and regrouped products and displays.

"The staff and I worked really hard to get that rolling,'' she said, adding her appreciation to two volunteers who helped clean the store.

Another reason for the store's decline is lack of new members.

"We just haven't done a membership drive,'' she said. "We never moved forward. In order to make a co-op survive and thrive, it depends on your members. I pay staff right now to do things that volunteers should do. We just don't have the member support.''

The cooperative was organized in the fall of 1980 by community members who wanted to sell food for people and not for profit. The theory was to keep prices low by using volunteer labor, selling food in bulk, and eliminating packaging, advertising and display costs.

The store would be open to the public and members would receive a discount. Customers could buy as much as they needed and could use their own containers.

The store opened for business on March 16, 1981, at 120 Sixth St. S.W. In 1983, the store moved to 314 Third St. S.W. The store is currently located at 412 Litchfield Ave. S.W.

Volunteer labor was used the first year and staff was hired the next year to oversee daily operations.

Lynette Hanson, a 25-year member and an eight-year employee, said she could see things "starting to change'' about three years ago, whether it was the economy or for other reasons.

She said people don't buy as much bulk food anymore, and larger grocery stores are now selling gluten-free products that were once a co-op niche item.

"It was getting more difficult, and sometimes things just run their course and maybe that's what happened with the Kandi Cupboard,'' Hanson said. "We have a lot of faithful elderly customers, and once they can't shop anymore, we've lost that customer and there are not too many younger replacements for that.''

Mary Catherwood, a co-op organizer and shopper, describes the store's closing as a tragedy.

"I think it's really sad,'' she said. "Hopefully somehow some of that spirit will start something new. It was a wonderful group of people that got together with an idea and I think it was really successful for a long, long time.''

Paul Borene, a founder, member and shopper, regrets the store is closing, but said it was fun to be part of a group of likeminded people working together.

"It's sad, even though the emotional attachment for it isn't the same as it used to be, whatever it was 30 years ago,'' he said.

"But still you make an investment in something, and it becomes sort of a fixture and you sort of depend on it, and because it was a community effort, you don't like to see things like that end.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150