Sugar Beet: from Red to Black in Less Than a Year

Stocking clerk John Smith, General Manager Chris Roland, and Marketing Director Lissa Dysart convene in the deli aisle.

Stocking clerk John Smith, General Manager Chris Roland, and Marketing Director Lissa Dysart convene in the deli aisle.

By Lisa Biehle Files

Sugar Beet Food Co-op’s first birthday party, dubbed “Kale Yeah,” will take place the weekend of July 30-31, with tastings, raffles, giveaways, games, and more from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., at 812 W. Madison St., in Oak Park.

Recently, we talked with General Manager, Chris Roland, to get a reading on the downs and ups of this small grocery store’s first year selling local, sustainable food.

Challenges and Solutions

Sugar Beet Food Co-op opened its doors on July 31, 2015. Not far away, Pete’s Fresh Market opened one month later. “So our honeymoon period was really quick,” Chris explained. “That was one of our biggest challenges. Pete’s sort of stunted things a little bit.”

Sugar Beet also had to work against a public misconception that in order to shop at the store, it was necessary to be a member. “We still get people who come in here and say, ‘I’m not an owner, but I just want to come in and walk around.’”

Let’s be clear, Sugar Beet Food Co-op is a grocery store for everyone in the community, regardless of membership.

Also, the store got feedback that prices were just plain too high. Beginning in February, Sugar Beet tackled this problem head on with their “Healthy Staples” program. They decided to sell 70 essential, everyday staples at prices very close to cost: eggs, milk, bulk oats, apples, bread, and more. For the list of these 70 “Healthy Staples”, click here.

Said Chris: “We really, really lowered our margin to almost zero on these items in order to create some value; sales for ‘Healthy Staples’ have been very high.”

Sales are also vigorous in the liquor section because Sugar Beet sells unique beer, wine, and spirits that aren’t available in any other area stores.

“We have one of the coolest whiskey and liquor sections around because we sell from all local distilleries, from Chicago, Illinois, Michigan. People love our beer and wine options,” Chris added.

The deli section has been popular as well. Consequently, the store will continue to expand its grab and go sections, including offerings at the café.

Turning a Profit

Staying on top of the above issues, developing creative solutions and controlling costs have led to financial success in 2016. The store operated in the red during 2015, primarily due to construction costs, but managed to turn a profit during the first two quarters of 2016. The business plan anticipated this would not happen until the middle of 2017, hence the store is well ahead of schedule, financially.

With 35 employees (15 full time and 20 part time) and 1400 owners/families, Sugar Beet has a built-in armada of marketers who are also helping it succeed.

Chris will continue to connect with local artisans, vendors, and farmers, expanding the reach of the store’s fundamental mission to support local producers. He also wants people to view Sugar Beet as more than just a convenience store for bottles of wine or deli sandwiches.

“I want convenience shoppers to see this as a place where they can do their regular grocery shopping too.”