The sour economy hasn't soured customers of the Wedge: The 36-year-old south Minneapolis grocery co-op's annual "patronage refund" to its members has hit $1 million for the first time, marking one of the largest such distributions in the country.

When food co-ops such as the Wedge make a profit, they typically return part of their earnings in cash to members, based on how much they spent the previous year. So the Wedge is sending out 13,400 checks to members, ranging from $2 to $1,731.

The average check for a shopper-member will be $58.31, said Elizabeth Archerd, the Wedge's membership and marketing manager. The $1,731 check went to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design's Green Club, she said. The largest check to a household was $974.

The checks represent about 3.5 percent of a member's purchases during the co-op's last fiscal year, which ended June 30.

The Wedge is one of the nation's largest single-store natural foods co-operatives, with $30 million in retail sales in its last fiscal year, and roughly another $12 million in wholesale sales.

It has been consistently profitable since the late 1980s, Archerd said. The patronage refund was a meager $3,500 in 1990. But in the last five years, the average payout has been $685,000, with a previous high of $801,000 in 2006.

At a minimum, the Wedge refunds 20 percent of its member-generated profits, though in recent years that number has been 50 percent to 75 percent. This year, it climbed to 80 percent. The co-op's capital spending needs for the next year were relatively low, and it has a "nice healthy reserve fund," Archerd said. "We said, 'why not give most of it back?'"

The Wedge is open to all shoppers. Members pay $80 for eight shares of Wedge stock -- a one-time cost. Members get food specials and $45 per year in discounts.

The Seward Co-op Grocery & Deli in south Minneapolis also had a record patronage refund in its last fiscal year-- $270,722, said Tom Vogel, the co-op's marketing manager. Like the Wedge, Seward has largely escaped the economic woes of the past couple of years.

People aren't eating out as much because of the economy, but co-op customers still like to eat well, so Seward's business has remained healthy, Vogel said.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003