Our Roots

Whether you remember it as the year that Sammy Davis Jr. and Mao Zedong invented Pong in the Watergate Hotel or simply as the year that Ben Affleck was born, there was something special about 1972. Here in Winona, on October 4, 1972, our co-op officially opened in its Second Street location.

The buzzing energy of the individuals who formed our Co-op, and the sense of community and spirit that was its first year of operations, is wonderfully described in the article “First Year of Famine Foods,” written by Roger Lacher, one of our Co-op’s founding members.

During those early days, the co-op had yet to acquire many of the most basic necessities needed to run a successful grocery store: cash registers, telephones, regular store hours, employees. The store was only open when members could volunteer for a shift. Rather than a cash register, Famine Foods used a yellow tackle box to store cash for transactions. Savvy members and shoppers knew that the tackle box was hidden in the peanut bin and the store key was hidden at the police station. Even heating and lighting were in short supply: “The donated pot-belly stove was going full-tilt, and yet everyone was wearing their scarves and parkas inside. The store was dimly lit. Its inventory included little more than the basics…however, people were cheerful and enthusiastic.”

This cheer and enthusiasm, coupled with passion and dedication, launched our Co-op. One member “spent a couple days just driving around Wisconsin and Minnesota looking for cheese sources,” while other members “who had vans or trucks and happened to be going to the Cities” served as delivery drivers.

In addition to a food co-op, other kinds of organizations with similar goals and ideals were being planned: The Garden of Eden Bakery, the Land & Buildings Co-op, a women’s center/people’s clinic, a restaurant, and an Open Door Bookstore.

Quite a few things have changed at our co-op over the years. When there were no longer enough volunteers to run the store, Famine Foods hired its first full-time employee, Michael Doyle, who established a system for bookkeeping and inventory and ensured regular store hours were maintained. From there, our store moved from mostly volunteers to mostly employees. Today, we are run completely by paid employees. These changes didn’t come without some turbulence. Doyle writes:

“Because a need was felt for a detailed record of each sales transaction, it was decided to obtain a cash register. This single act seemed to be the most apparent symbol of our changes. The fishing tackle box till was no longer needed; now additional skill was necessary to check out a customer, which caused some dismay among our more anarchistic members. It came in the winter. At about the same time, some working members advocated installing a phone in the store. The opposition stated their case: The co-op was uncomfortably beginning to resemble every other capitalistic business operation.”

Since those early days, we’ve changed our name, moved to a new location, and expanded our store. It’s sometimes hard to believe the many changes that have taken place; yet at the same time, the same drive that motivated people to volunteer their time to go out searching for healthy, local food to bring back to their community is still very much alive in our co-op. Today, Bluff Country and its 2,000+ owners continue to serve our community using a cooperative business model and mindset. We strive to honor our co-op’s story by providing high quality, local products as well as education about the benefits of healthful food and sustainable, local agriculture.