When Theresa Ziegler’s kids were growing up, she often had to drive from her north Minneapolis home to the northern suburbs to shop for groceries.
The North Side had few grocery options beyond the limited selections at convenience stores. The area, separated from the booming North Loop by Interstate 94 and from fast-growing Northeast by the Mississippi River, is a federally designated food desert — a low-income census tract where a significant portion of the population lives more than a mile from a supermarket.
But that’s starting to change. A decadelong community effort to open a co-op on the North Side finally paid off Aug. 10, when Wirth Cooperative Grocery opened its doors. And Pillsbury United Communities’ North Market is expected to open later this fall.
“Grocery stores are oftentimes an indication of the health of a community,” said Adair Mosley, Pillsbury’s interim president and CEO. “Us being able to provide and bring these online for the north Minneapolis residents, I think, speaks to where the future of this community is going.”
Ziegler, who now lives in Plymouth, visited for the first time Friday. Her husband works nearby as a food service coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools.
“I want to support this place,” she said. “I want it to be a huge success.”
Wirth Co-op employees were winding down from the Friday lunch rush and getting ready for the after-school crowd. Tyrone Stewart was bouncing between the deli counter and the cash register, alternately assembling sandwiches and ringing up purchases for a slow but steady stream of customers.
Stewart quit his restaurant job to work at the co-op and said he’s enjoying the new environment and the freedom it’s given him. He likes making up recipes for new deli offerings — a recent broccoli salad was particularly popular.
The co-op is working to be responsive to what its customers want, even if it’s not something that other co-ops carry. General Manager Winston Bell said a suggestions notebook fills up almost weekly and has resulted in new products from LaCroix water to rice milk to Jiffy corn muffin mix.
The kids who come in after school have been asking for Hot Cheetos — and Takis, Stewart added — but those haven’t been ordered yet.
“At least the Cheetos — that’d be good,” Bell said. “They can’t have both.”
A rush to opening
Wirth Co-op began in 2007 with a group of residents from the Harrison, Bryn Mawr and Willard-Hay neighborhoods who wanted to boost access to healthy, local, organic food.
Financing was hard to come by. But early this year, the project received a $500,000 federal grant and lenders soon followed.
After that, it was all a rush to put up walls, install flooring, slap on paint and stock the shelves.
“It was real — like, ‘What’s it going to be like?’ ” Bell said. “We were up a couple nights right before we opened.”
The store has 11 employees, including Bell, and offers a wide range of products. There’s white bread and whole wheat bread. There’s Betty Crocker cake mix and garbanzo bean flour. There’s candy and a grocery cart full of produce, with a sign telling customers they can fill a bag for $3.
Ziegler and her husband have switched to an organic-only diet now that their children are grown and out of the house. But she liked the variety at Wirth Co-op, where about 40 percent of products are organic and the rest are not.
“I think they’re wise as a business to have things they know people who live in the neighborhood might want in a hurry,” she said.
Ziegler came in looking for organic cilantro — for homemade guacamole — and left with eggs, mustard, an orange and a package of flour tortillas.
“This is really fresh and beautiful,” she said, holding the tortillas gently in her hands. “And I can hardly wait to taste it.”