Going out of Business Since 1971:
An Informal History of the Pomme de Terre Food Co-op

By Peter Whelan (1996)

In 1996 Pomme de Terre Foods, Inc. (long known to its friends as “PDT” or “the Co-op) Celebrates its 25th anniversary as a source of whole grains, coffees, teas, cereals, spices, nuts, dried fruit, and other bulk and non-processed foods. As almost everyone associated with the Co-op can tell you, those 25 years have rarely been calm if we weren’t struggling to find volunteers to fill clerking slots on a given Monday morning, we were probably wondering how we could possibly pay for the shipment due the following Friday. If by chance neither of those crises was currant, we’d be busy calling people in the hope of completing the monthly inventory in time for the next balance sheet, or looking for the key with which to open the store on Saturday morning, or seeking volunteers to fix a once-again leaky roof. (Is it any wonder that “Going Out Of Business Since 1971” became our motto?) Along with the seemingly inevitable crises, however, there has always been the dream of what people can do by working together. It is the dream that gave birth to the Co-op a quarter-century ago, it is the dream that helped nurture the Co-op through hard times, it is the dream that has become the reality of a source of non-processed, organic, and alternative foods for so many of us here in Morris and in surrounding communities throughout west central Minnesota.

The brief history that follows relies heavily on unpublished research papers or internship reports by UMM students, informal interviews with various members of the PDT community, and the historical archives of the West Central Minnesota History Research Center located in Briggs Library on the University of Minnesota, Morris, campus. Two unpublished manuscripts (“The Morris Food Co-op: A Historical Research Paper”, Sara Beckstrand, 1980 and “A Brief History of Pomme de Terre Foods”, Patrick J. Moore, 1981) provide valuable information about the early years of the Co-op. An unpublished internship report by Darcie Litton (1990 “Pomme de Terre Foods: An Internship Experience”) provides more recent historical data about the Co-op as well as interesting and useful demographic information about the store’s customer base in the late 1980’s. (Note that these three manuscripts are referred to and cited by the author’s last name in the narrative that follows.) Copies of all three manuscripts are on file at the store; Beckstrand’s and Moore’s research papers can be consulted at the West Central Minnesota History Research Center as well. The Center also includes a variety of papers and memorabilia from the early days of the Co-op, and anyone interested in learning more about PDT’s first decade of existence is urged to consult the Center’s files.

What was to become Pomme de Terre Foods, Inc. Hereafter, fondly and simply PDT) was founded in 1971 by a small group of students and faculty at the University of Minnesota, Morris (UMM). Their discussions regarding co-ops and alternative food sources resulted in the establishment of an on-campus food co-op known as the Prairie Dog Store which, over the next four years, was variously located in Pine Hall, Blakely Hall, and the P.E. Annex. The rent was nominal (none!), the stock was minimal (primarily bulk grains and cereals, popcorn, salt, peanut butter), and the membership was drawn mostly from UMM students, faculty, and staff.

Although the Co-op’s relationship with UMM was a reasonably amicable one – perhaps because, as then-Assistant Provost Steven Granger told Beckstrand, “Frankly we never thought that the Co-op would be around long, so we didn’t pay that much attention to it” – some members perceived a need to more strongly involve the community in the co-op movement. As a result, for a brief time in 1972 and early 1973, the Co-op moved into the basement of the Christus House in an effort to make itself more accessible to the broader Morris community. Patronage and revenue declined, however, and in February, 1973, the Co-op moved back to the basement of Pine Hall on the UMM campus.

A small group of UMM students and faculty persisted in their belief that the Co-op should attempt to reach out to the larger community, however, and the search for a suitable off-campus location continued. In early 1975 the Prairie Dog Store moved to a new location at 703 Oregon Avenue near downtown Morris. With the assistance of UMM Business Manager Dan Noble, the Co-op was incorporated as a non-profit corporation to be known henceforth as “Pomme de Terre Foods, Inc.” PDT’s articles of incorporation were signed on April 14, 1975, by the then members of the Board of Directors (Claudia Gahr, Mary Nilsen, and James Vance) and notarized by Bob Holmes (UMM’s Financial Aids Director); Joan Growe, Minnesota’s Secretary of State, signed the Articles of Incorporation on April 18, 1975; and on April 24 the Articles were formally filed and recorded in the Office of Register of Deeds of Stevens County.

According to those Articles of Incorporation, the stated purpose of the co-op was “to purchase, grow, or otherwise acquire nutritions [sic] foodstuffs for sale to members without profit to itself or any of its members.” The $5.00 annual membership fee entitled a member to “one vote at the annual meeting of that year.”

As Moore notes, PDT was not then and never has been a co-op in the usual sense of the word. Members hold no ownership in the corporation known as “Pomme de Terre Foods, Inc.” and, unlike a true cooperative, members do not receive yearly dividends from the corporation. The PDT Board of Directors is legally responsible for the affairs of the co-op and “profits” (i.e., money accrued beyond that needed to meet operating expenses) are used solely for increasing the store inventory or purchasing equipment required for operating the store.

From the beginning the new store on Oregon Avenue was staffed by volunteer clerks, and customers chose from a variety of bulk foods that working members picked up on bi-weekly runs to cooperative distribution warehouses or other businesses in the Twin Cities. During the early months at the new site the Co-op operated with “no cash register [a cigar box reportedly held the daily receipts], no coolers, no certified scale, [only] a few shelves, and some makeshift containers…transactions were recorded in battered student spiral notebooks which contained poems, passing thoughts, doodles and messages in addition to the numbers.” (Moore).

During those early years the membership grew rapidly: In August, 1975 there were 110 paid working members, 42 paid non-working members and 47 daily members; a year later the respective numbers were 119, 171 and 121. Late in 1977, however, the membership policy was changed, apparently in the belief that “the membership fee acted as a deterrent to community shoppers…Under the new system, all shoppers were charged the 30% mark-up except those who worked six hours a month. Workers received a 15% discount and it was only they who had a say determining co-op policy.” (Moore)

During this period the Co-op received a needed infusion of funds and equipment from the West Central Community Action Program (WCCAP) and the Stevens County Action Center. The latter provided a cooler as well as a flour mill for grinding grain; and a grant of $3,000 from the WCCAP resulted in the purchase of, among other things, food storage bins, memberships for low-income families, a reach-in cooler, a juicer, and a cash register. Additional funding from Rural Minnesota CEP supported the coordinator/manager’s salary through the early years.

In the decade that followed, the Co-op continued to open its doors more of less as scheduled and to pay its bills more or less on time. Unfortunately, volunteer clerks were not always available and at times, to the frustration of ourselves and our customers, PDT’s doors were unexpectedly closed. Price markups and discount policies were periodically reviewed and changed to reflect the changing times and the changing cash flow. At other times, cash advances were solicited from members in an effort to put the store on a more solid financial footing.

The Co-op’s Articles of Incorporation called for an annual meeting of the membership “between April 15 and April 30” each year. These annual membership meetings provided a time for the members to get together, if not in total celebration, at least in thanks that they had witnessed yet another year in the story of PDT’s so-far-successful struggle to survive.

In a true ecumenical spirit, these meetings were held in a variety of area churches and religious centers. On April 9, 1976, for example, the inaugural annual meeting (which featured the first of the traditional PDT pot lucks” was held in the basement of the Assumption Catholic Church. The second meeting was held at the Faith Lutheran Church Education Center. The third annual meeting was once again scheduled, so it was thought, for the basement of Assumption Catholic Church, “but when a few co-opers showed up at the church with some bottles of wine, they were told by the custodian that the basement had been reserved by another group for that night…[Not to be discouraged,] the group was able to move to the back room of the Eagles Club bar where a splendid and merry feast ensued [!]” (Moore). The fourth and fifth annual co-op pot luck and membership meetings were held in the living room of the Christus House before returning, once again, to the Faith Lutheran Church Education center in April, 1981.

During these years the occasional special meeting was called when things seemed terminally gloomy, and at times, there was active talk of the need to recognize the reality that the Co-op was simply not making it. Throughout it all, however, there were members who maintained their strong belief in the idea and the ideal of a cooperative enterprise dedicated to better, and more simple, foods in west central Minnesota; their efforts kept the store alive.

In their 1987-88 annual report the PDT Board of Directors noted that “In many ways the past year has been typical of PDT’s history in the Morris community. We once again passed through our series of crises – seasonal shortfalls in accounts, the occasional dearth of clerks, orders which went unfilled, molasses over the floor.” However, although this litany of crises did reflect a continuing and all-too-usual pattern, wide-ranging and significant changes lay ahead for PDT.

In late 1987, the PDT Board of Directors, once again faced with problems of finding and retaining store managers, proposed that the Co-op should try being just that: a cooperative enterprise totally run by volunteers and volunteer committees that should agree to oversee various aspects of the store’s operation. To a gratifying degree, a large number of individuals stepped forward to form a variety of committees: the Clerking Committee agreed to recruit and oversee the in-store clerking staff; the Order Committee took on the task of placing the bi-weekly orders through DANCe (our co-op supplier/distributor in the Twin Cities); a Shipment Committee recruited and coordinated the unloading, unpacking, and check-off of the orders as they arrived via truck every two weeks; an Inventory Committee coordinated the monthly store inventory; Newsletter, Membership, and Special Events Committees oversaw their respective tasks (1987, for example, witnessed the First Annual Co-op Rummage Sale, an enterprise that added $442.75 to the store’s bank account).

The Financial Committee’s report for the 1987-88 fiscal year noted that the Co-op “made a strong financial recovery this past year. The financial committee estimated that we needed average daily sales of $125.00 to keep the Co-op open. From June through August 1987, we had average daily sales of $116.00. In September we reached our goal with an average daily sales figure of $131.86. The last seven months have averaged $165.00 a day. [Moreover, in] the past year our savings account has grown from 463.07 to $1368.13.”

Perhaps the biggest story of that year, however, was the decision to move from our long-time storefront on Oregon Avenue to a site on the corner of Oregon and 7th (in the same building but now directly across the street from Willie’s Super Valu). In late 1987 a number of members proposed that PDT should move to the front of the building to provide more visibility, more space, and the possibility of eventually having a coffeehouse adjoining the store. Discussions were held between the PDT Board of Directors and Dan Noble, our long-time landlord and owner of the building, and an agreement was reached that would allow us to move into an area that, in terms of size and location, would represent a marked improvement over the space in which the store had been located for the previous twelve years.

The move required planning and coordinating a major renovation project: old plumbing fixtures were removed and new plumbing was added to meet State Health Code requirements; interior walls came down and electrical circuits were rewired in anticipation for the larger electrical load that would be placed on the system; a furnace room was built; floors were scraped, sanded and refinished, and new shelving was constructed and put in place; the exterior was cleaned and repainted; a new PDT sign was made and painted; and, one Saturday afternoon, a group of PDT faithful reroofed the front of the building.

With the help of a sizable contingent of the Co-op’s membership and the strong backs of DeWayne Michaelson and sons, the entire contents of the store was moved from the old to the new premises on Saturday and Sunday, April 16 and 17, 1988. It was a long two days but on Monday, April 18, yet another era in PDT’s history was begun with the opening of our new storefront at 25 East 7th Street. Seventeen years after its beginnings as a small buying club on the University of Minnesota, Morris, campus, the Co-op was about to assume a much more visible role as a supplier of bulk and non-processed foods in west central Minnesota.

The October-November issue of the Pomme de Terre Foods Newsletter that year reflected the growth of PDT and its customer base. The newsletter was sent to nearly 400 people in Morris and the surrounding area. As would be expected, the mailing list reflected the large number of customers who lived in Morris. The newsletter also went to customers/members from Alberta, Appleton, Barrett, Beardsley, Bellingham, Benson, Breckenridge, Canby, Chokio, Clontarf, Colton (SD), Correll, Cyrus, Donnelly, Dumont, Elbow Lake, Farwell, Fergus Falls, Graceville, Hancock, Herman, Hoffman, Holloway, Johnson, Kensington, Montevideo, Norcross, Odessa, Ortonville, Scandia, Sedan, Springfield, Starbuck, Tintah, Tyler, and Wheaton.

In the late 1988 the PDT Board of Directors turned their attention to the space in the southwestern corner of the building. Following up on earlier discussions, this “lower level” area (three steps down from the main store) was converted into a coffee house called The Hatchery (in recognition of the fact that the building was the site of a former egg hatchery). The grand opening of The Hatchery took place on Saturday, February 18, 1989, and featured local artists who provided live music throughout the day, storytelling by Leona Classen, and a sampling of juices and other store products.

The Hatchery was subsequently used by various community groups for meetings and cultural events. On March 7, 1989, for example, a group of UMM Students met for a poetry reading; the next week’s student newspaper, The University Register, noted that “The Hatchery was filled to capacity with students coming to hear the works of peers.”

In late 1989 Darcie Litton, a UMM student and a PDT member, expressed an interest in doing an economics/management internship that would focus on PDT. She noted in her report that “one of the biggest problem areas in the co-op is to enlist the support of volunteers.” Based on her analysis of the store’s customer base, she concluded that “the co-op will probably not expand its volunteer base by appealing to its shoppers; the most likely source of new volunteers is the University.” She went on to note concern about volunteer clerks needing to take more responsibility for looking after the store, and suggested setting out job lists. These and other suggestions were implemented, with variable but generally considerable success, throughout the summer of 1990.

As part of her internship, Darcie visited other co-ops in Minnesota and discovered that PDT was “the only” one that operated on “an almost total volunteer basis.” She noted that the possibly inevitable result was that PDT had higher worker discounts than others – for example, she found that the “most common discount system among co-ops in the Twin Cities was a one-time 10 percent discount for eight hours of volunteer work a month”.

In late 1990, barely two years after settling into our Oregon and 7th storefront, the PDT Board of Directors learned that our long-time landlord, Dan Noble, had decided to sell the entire building complex in which PDT was located. In subsequent discussions with Dan, the Board worked out an agreement in principle to purchase the building for a price of $33,600, provided that a substantial down payment was forthcoming. In a letter dated April 15, 1991, Peter Whelan, a past chair of the PDT Board of Directors, described the proposed purchase to a small number of long standing PDT members and friends and solicited loans and/or donations to meet the agreed-upon down payment of approximately $15,000. On May 6, 1991, a letter over the signatures of Roland Guyotte, Maddy Maxeiner, Clare Strand, and Peter Whelan took the building fund appeal to the general membership and the community at large. Two months later we were able to announce that more than $10,000 had been raised “including donations and interest-free loans ranging in amount from $5 to $1,000), and in early August a gracious and generous interest-free loan from a long-standing supporter of co-ops from Wheaton took our building campaign over the top. In the following weeks, with a final deadline looming, Ray Strand and Jay Fier coordinated discussions with local banks regarding the financing of the building purchase. Because the three Morris banks declined the opportunity to work with the Co-op, they went to the Farmers and Merchants State Bank of Donnelly. Butch Ersted and his bank enthusiastically supported the proposal and, completing the loan, PDT took ownership of the present building.

In the five years since taking over the building on the corner of Oregon and 7th, PDT has continued to grow and, in its own inimitable way, thrive. Closer inventory management, more advertising (including radio advertising), and a wider selection of traditional and specialty food items (including gluten-free products) have helped to attract a larger number of area residents and have helped to keep the Co-op in an enviable position of , if not prosperity, at least solvency. Our freezer contains a cache of fast-selling Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and our dairy cooler holds one of the area’s larger selections of gourmet imported and domestic cheeses. A variety of ethnic food items (including Italian, Thai, Indian, and Chinese) are selling well in the lower level. Shoppers who enjoy crafts appreciate the wide selection of colorful and aromatic bulk potpourri ingredients.

In addition to this overall increase in the variety of foods and merchandise sold in the store, the past few years have witnessed several improvements, including the installation of central air conditioning and the purchase of a new cash register and new electronic scales. Buying clubs that focus on organic produce and bread are well supported and continue to bring customers into the store. And, after a lapse of a number of years, extended shopping hours on Thursday evenings have been re-instituted. Moreover, PDT’s cash flow continues to be augmented by rents on other space in the building: Thumbs-Up Marbles (“Morris and San Francisco”) occupies the old storefront area off Oregon Avenue, and the upstairs apartment and a garage continue to be filled as well.

What does the future hold? Given the history of the Co-op’s first 25 years, we would probably be wise to anticipate that PDT’s next 25 years will be filled with another succession of as-yet-undefined crises; although most will undoubtedly be minor, a few may very well be major. As long as there are people, however, who believe in Pomme de Terre Foods and all that it can bring to the community, I have little doubt that we will survive. In fact, I rather suspect that in another 25 years we’ll be celebrating an entire half-century of our “going out of business since 1971”!