Wheatsfield History Continued
…The newly incorporated MAFA moved out of Alumni Hall into a small space at 114 Des Moines Avenue in downtown Ames. It wasn’t long before more space was needed and in March of 1977 another move was made to a store-front at 136 Main Street. In these tiny spaces, bulk foods, some supplements, milk alternatives, and local produce were offered to the people of Ames.
In 1980, the store was moved to 413 Douglas in Downtown Ames. The produce cooler, bulk bins and the original walk-in cooler were eventually added and the store was able to significantly increase the products it offered in the larger 1,200 square foot space. In 1985, the members decided to change the name of the business to Wheatsfield Grocery and to institute the Share Investment Plan. There were several resets and remodels in the 1990’s and in October of 2001, Wheatsfield expanded into 1,975 square feet of retail space by leasing the location adjacent to 413 Douglas. The wall was removed between the two spaces and the combined store was reset from the floor up with many new products, equipment, and a small seating area. Membership and sales volume exploded in the new store and in June of 2003 a second cash register lane and a point of sale system were added to accommodate the growth.
In the same year, 2002, Wheatsfield set its future course by joining the Midwest Cooperative Grocers Association which is now National Cooperative Grocers, taking a step into the cooperative world outside of Ames. Wheatsfield celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2004 and continued its remarkable growth. The Wheatsfield Board of Directors recognized the need for more space and a probable expansion outside of the current store and began working on establishing the legal identity of Wheatsfield as a cooperative in the state of Iowa. In January of 2005 the cooperative entity, Wheatsfield Cooperative was born.
In July of 2005, the Board established a patronage dividend system to take the place of cash register discounts so that profits from the operation of the business could be allocated and distributed to the members in proportion to their patronage of the Co-op. In 2006, the Wheatsfield Board was able to declare the first patronage dividend to the members.
As it continued to grow, Wheatsfield met an important milestone in 2007 as the store achieved $2 million in sales for its 2006-2007 fiscal year. This accomplishment meant that the store had surpassed a retail benchmark of $1,000 in sales per square foot, which is an indicator of the need to expand its retail space.
As the limitations of the 413 Douglas space became more apparent, the Wheatsfield Board worked to find a site to build a larger store. In 2008, Wheatsfield signed a lease for retail space at 413 Northwestern Ave, the former Sigler Printing building. The new space offered a parking lot, loading dock, and three times the space of the current store. As the remodeling of the space progressed, Wheatsfield was able to include a fresh Meat Department, a Deli, a Bakery and a larger seating area, all new additions to the products available at the Co-op. Renovations were completed and the new store was opened on March 18, 2009.
After the relocated store was open for several years, it was clear that further expansion was needed to better serve co-op member-owners and prepare for new competitors coming into the Ames area. A lengthy expansion project was completed in January 2017 that increased the retail square footage of the store to over 8,600. This expansion allowed the store to utilize the full building and part of the attached warehouse, with a total square footage of just under 20,000. More parking was added along with a full service meat counter, a coffee and juice bar, as well as a teaching kitchen and classroom. The existing one sided hot bar/salad bar was replaced with a much larger two sided unit and a deck oven was added to the bakery to allow for an artisan bread program.
Sales topped $7.1 million in 2017 with the completion of the expansion project. Sales growth slowed in 2018 and 2019 with the opening of the first direct natural foods competitor for Wheatsfield. The addition of Fresh Thyme into the grocery market scene in Ames changed the competitive landscape for the Co-op and sales decreased significantly. Much of the past couple of years was spent examining every aspect of the store operation in an effort to control and match expenses to the decreased level of revenues while striving to regain market share in the face of increased competition.
Things turned around for the Co-op when Fresh Thyme closed its Ames store in November 2019. Sales started increasing right after they closed and continued to improve throughout the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020-2021. The impacts of the pandemic on the Co-op have been far reaching but Wheatsfield remained strong in its commitment to serve its member-owners and the community by offering a safe place to shop when most other places were shut down. The quick addition of a curbside pickup program as the pandemic was taking hold in Iowa in March 2020 changed the way we do business and offered a glimpse into how grocery stores will operate in the future. As we come to the end of the fiscal year, sales are projected to be over $8 million for the first time ever, a huge milestone that helps to realize the vision of the 2016 expansion project.