by Steve Prestegard
Many businesses are created from the combination of many people discovering a great idea, but a smaller number of people running with it.
That is a partial description of Driftless Market in downtown Platteville, which sells organic and locally grown foods and other items with the goal of environmental consciousness.
Driftless Market is owned by Jayne Dunnum, Robin Timm, Heidi Dyas-McBeth and her husband Bill McBeth.
“Jayne and I were growing organic vegetables at the farmer’s market and looking to sell someplace where it was more available than just on Saturdays,” said Timm. “Heidi was at the market doing artwork, and Bill was selling vegetables. So we started having meetings where people in the community who wanted a co-op, but nobody wanted to do the work, so we were crazy enough to jump in.”
“How hard can it be?” joked Dyas-McBeth.
How hard can it be? How about starting a business in the early days of the Great Recession in 2008, at the same time that the streets in front and the side of your business are under construction?
“We felt lucky that young people are really interested in organic food, and they were able to get through the mud,” said Timm.
Dunnum grew up in a family that owned a Milwaukee restaurant, but none of the other owners had previous business experience.
“I think we were all very entrepreneurial, though,” said Dyas-McBeth, noting that Dunnum and Timm “were running their own [Community Supported Agriculture group]. But we’ve also learned that we are not here for this business to sell just what we want; it doesn’t make sense to do it if nobody else in the community wants it.
“We started with community input, and I feel that’s what makes the business a success — even before we opened our doors we held community meetings for support. That was how we came up with capital to open the store.”
The most unique thing about Driftless Market in Dyas-McBeth’s opinion is “our uniqueness of atmosphere — all the different things coming together makes it more unique than anything else.”
“It is family-owned, and people look at us like family,” said Timm.
The store features locally grown food to promote local agriculture.
“We’re very particular about what comes in the back door, and if it doesn’t meet our standards it goes right back out,” said Timm.
Locally grown and organic food can be more expensive than what’s found in a traditional supermarket, but, said Timm, “We work very hard not to gouge the customer. If you look at our prices compared with bigger-city co-ops, we work very hard to be reasonable.”
“I think we’re a value, because you can get what you want, it’s a quality product, and people know our vendors,” said Dyas-McBeth.
What also is unique is the changes in what’s offered in the store. There are three soups every day, two of which are different each day. “People can come here and see something new every day,” said Dunnum. “People can say ‘I really like this thing,’ and we can supply it, and bigger stores can’t do that. It’s more of an advantage with a small store, that you’re not stuck with stuff that doesn’t sell well.”
The store has regular customers, some of whom visit daily without buying much. “They just like stopping in this store,” said Dunnum.
Timm orders produce, and “right now I’m quite enamored with Caracara oranges — it’s just a navel orange, but they’re pink and very sweet. In the summer I love pluots — a plum–apricot cross.”
“My favorite thing changes from week to week,” said Dyas-McBeth.
In addition to selling food, the store educates customers on how to use it.
“We can explain to people how to use kale, and we sell a lot in bulk so people can buy a small amount of things,” said Dunnum.
The initial vision of selling local foods and art work shifted toward food because of the success of selling local and organic food. The store now is selling gourmet macaroni and cheese from three local cheesemakers.
“I was real gung ho to try to have my very own art work, but also other artists’ work,” said Dyas-McBeth. “It seemed like we had gotten a bit of that in the early beginning, and then we lost it because we were running out of space” on the first floor.
When the second floor opened as Above the Market one year ago for dining and events, that opened up space for art for sale on the walls, with garden and bedding plants being sold upstairs too — “more merchandise, more gift items, local products,” said Dunnum. “It’s given us a lot more variety and ability to do more things and be flexible with what we offer in the store. And as a small business you have to keep evolving and changing with what we offer.”
“We did want it to be eclectic, to offer things people seem to want, and it was also our own passions,” said Dunnum. “But as a small business it’s also about finding as many revenue streams as you can.”
The store is working with the Platteville Public Library to possibly start a book club, while also holding concerts and cooking classes upstairs. Another example is the store’s large first-floor kitchen, which allowed the production of not just ingredients for sale, but finished products.
In addition to Above the Market, the store has also expanded its deli thanks to the initiative of its deli manager, Cena Sharp. Driftless Market has 10 employees, most of whom are part-time.
The environment has been an emphasis of the store’s owners since it opened. Food waste is composted.
“I particularly have a passion against waste,” said Timm. “I grew up with a mother who grew up in the Depression, and she didn’t waste anything.”
The owners have worked with UW–Platteville’s Pioneer Academic Center for Community Engagement on several projects. One project solved the problem of temperature variations in the produce case by covering the case with thin plastic, preventing continuous running of the compressor and occasional freezing of produce. Others evaluated selling insects as a protein source, and created Geographic Information Systems maps of local food producers.
The next PACCE project will evaluate a rooftop garden to grow herbs sold in the store and perennial plants.
One of the owners’ biggest learning experiences was, said Dyas-McBeth, “having to manage people — it’s one thing if it’s just the four of us, but it’s hard to find people with the same values and work ethic. And we’ve been very lucky.”
“People say in the community you’re lucky to be your own boss,” said Timm. “Well, not really. The customer is our boss.”
The learning experience of running your own business extends to dealing with disasters. The store, and nearly all of the rest of Platteville, had no electric power for almost a day and a half after the June 2014 tornadoes. Food in the walk-in refrigerator had to be thrown out, but they were able to borrow freezer space in Mineral Point to preserve frozen food.
Before Above the Market opened, the second floor was apartment space. This proved handy when the walk-in compressor failed in the winter. The owners were able to use a second-floor three-seasons room to preserve food until the refrigerator was fixed.
“A lot of customers were amazed we didn’t close,” said Dunnum. “Well, we can’t afford to close if we can sell something.”
“I felt we were quite resourceful,” said Dyas-McBeth.
While the store will continue to evolve, it’s not likely to expand outside Platteville. Dunnum said they have been approached about opening another store.
“They want to duplicate this, and we’ve told them we’d be happy to help, but they really need to find their own people in their community,” she said. “We live here, and we know people in the community, and we listen to them.”