A Natural Order

Pam Mehnert used to think that kimchi, a traditional fermented Korean side dish, was a pickled concoction of rotting food that was buried in a jar (yes, in the ground) for a year or so until it was ready to … um, eat. So it was with some trepidation that she decided to make a refrigerator version. She tossed Napa cabbage with salt and sugar and let the mixture sit overnight in the refrigerator. The next day, she added a brine of garlic, ginger, Asian chili powder, fish sauce, soy sauce, salted shrimp, julienned carrots and sliced green onions, then…

Pam Mehnert used to think that kimchi, a traditional fermented Korean side dish, was a pickled concoction of rotting food that was buried in a jar (yes, in the ground) for a year or so until it was ready to … um, eat.

So it was with some trepidation that she decided to make a refrigerator version. She tossed Napa cabbage with salt and sugar and let the mixture sit overnight in the refrigerator. The next day, she added a brine of garlic, ginger, Asian chili powder, fish sauce, soy sauce, salted shrimp, julienned carrots and sliced green onions, then stored it in the fridge for another 24 hours.

“Delicious, although I cut back on the soy sauce and fish sauce because both are quite salty,” says Mehnert, general manager of Outpost Natural Foods co-op. “It’s terrific on grilled pork or a chicken taco or with fish. And it doesn’t taste rotten at all.”Why make a food she wasn’t sure she’d like? It was part of a daunting experiment: For one entire year, Mehnert vowed to live without the convenience of prepared foods. From April 17, 2010, to April 16, 2011, while meeting her very full schedule of obligations, she cooked most of her meals from scratch. Crackers. Granola. Pasta. Yogurt. Even cheese. Along the way, Mehnert blogged about the experience at “A Year of Inconvenience: This Girl Is Making It All Herself.”

“It was fun, terrifying, frustrating – and, of course, time-consuming,” says Mehnert, 56. “And I really missed cold breakfast cereal. But it taught me that anyone can get back to the basics of not depending on convenience food, especially fast food.”

Pam Mehnert doesn’t do things half-heartedly. In her 20s, she committed herself to meaningful work, something that “allowed me to walk my talk.” She’s been Outpost’s general manager for 27 years, helping make it one of the five largest retail food co-operatives in the U.S.

Mehnert’s office is in Outpost’s Downtown headquarters, inside an old exposed-brick-and-ductwork building overlooking the Milwaukee River, and it’s filled with food-related memorabilia: framed grocery store ads, cracker tins, colored glass bottles. Mehnert is known for maintaining a relaxed demeanor and dresses comfortably; her blonde hair is cut short at ear length, and she favors blue jeans, sneakers and T-shirts. Most days, she looks like she’s ready to pitch in on the grocery store floor, which she sometimes does.

Mehnert’s involvement with Outpost goes far back, although not to the co-op’s beginnings. Outpost began as the Kane Street Food Co-op in April 1970, founded by anti-establishment activists looking for a way to buy foods they considered wholesome.

“It was a tiny store,” recalls Steve Pincus, one of the founders and the first general manager. “And political. We wanted to set up an alternative, parallel system to just about everything, and food was a good place to start.” Pincus, who is now the owner of the Tipi Produce CSA (community supported agriculture) farm in Evansville, Wis., recalls that the co-op was open 24 hours a day, “not just to sell more food, but because people wanted a place to hang out.”

The Kane Street Food Co-op closed after six months for health violations but was reborn a year later as Outpost Natural Foods. The name stemmed from the founders’ sense of being pioneers in “this vast wasteland of depleted and processed foods.” Its first locations were in Riverwest: storefronts on Clarke Street and Locust Street, and then a small corner grocery at Holton and Keefe.

(Full disclosure: I joined Outpost in 1976 when I moved to Milwaukee and have been a loyal owner ever since. In those days, the atmosphere at the Locust Street location was, well, very laid-back. There was often a faint odor of marijuana, and the spacey checkout clerks – “Hey, man, great potatoes you’re buying there” – sometimes made incorrect change. I never cheated them, though. That would have been bad co-op juju.)

Meanwhile, Mehnert was casting about for a job after college. She grew up in Milwaukee, Glendale, Cedarburg and Thiensville in an evangelical Christian home, with parents who bought homes, fixed them up and sold them for a profit. Her great-grandparents had a truck farm on Green Bay Road in Glendale, from which the family sold produce through garden centers and the West Allis Farmers Market.

“Those are some of my fondest memories,” she recalls. “The values of my childhood carry over. That’s why working this job is so important to me.”

Photo by Sara Stathas.

Mehnert was introduced to natural foods while at a Pasadena Calif., branch of the now-defunct Ambassador College, which was operated by the Worldwide Church of God. Upon graduation, she found few job options for a theology major: “Basically, I could meet the guy of my dreams and marry a minister,” she says. “That’s not what happened.” Mehnert and her partner, Lisa Malmarowski, Outpost’s marketing manager, have been together 15 years and own a home on the West Side. They were married in Seattle in September 2013.

In 1980, Mehnert returned to Milwaukee and joined the staff of Outpost as a customer service clerk/administrative assistant. From there, she became the assistant grocery manager, then marketing manager, and was named GM in 1987.

“I was surprised that I liked it so much,” Mehnert recalls. Eager for knowledge, she tagged along with other staffers to find out as much as she could about the grocery business. She learned how to buy groceries and wholesale hard goods, how to set up displays, how to do receiving.

By 1988, sales at the Holton and Keefe location were growing, but there were problems. The store was too small, and the parking lot was problematic: People’s batteries sometimes got stolen out of their cars while they shopped. Plus, Pick ’n Save had opened nearby in 1985. “They beat the pants off of us,” Mehnert recalls. “They were bigger, selling in bulk and trying to put us out of business.”

The Outpost board and staff realized that to compete, they had to move to a larger, more visible place where people would feel safe shopping. So Outpost took a big leap, and in 1990, it moved to a supermarket-sized space in a strip mall on East Capitol Drive.

The transition was not smooth. “There were more costs in running a larger operation and more ways to lose money doing it,” recalls William Quinn, now in his 30th year as Outpost’s produce manager. “In the early days, we didn’t even have an operating budget. We didn’t have access to a lot of capital, so we had to lease a lot of the equipment. Not the best way to do it.”

In 1992, the bank threatened to call its loan. Mehnert got advice from other co-op managers for developing systems to control labor costs and losses, and she pleaded Outpost’s case with the National Co-op Bank in Washington, D.C., which loaned the store money – despite little collateral – to pay off the original loan. Within six months, Outpost was in a positive cash flow position.

Despite the glitches, loyal Outpost owners (all members are called “owners”) have shown their support by loaning money to the cooperative: $250,000 for the relocation to Capitol Drive and $750,000 to open on State Street. All loans have been repaid with interest.

Over the years, Outpost has used the consulting services of Walden Swanson, chair of Co-op Metrics, based in Andover, Mass., which works with co-ops and nonprofits. During the birthing pains at Capitol Drive, Swanson suggested using data, combined with the Outpost staff’s experience and knowledge, to make decisions. Mehnert could see the advantages immediately.

“Pam was right on the forefront of that,” Swanson says, “such as using timed trials to improve productivity for repetitive tasks. Over time, the approach of using data plus experience has allowed Outpost to develop a lot of best practices that are now used by co-ops all over the country.”

Following those best practices has allowed the Capitol Drive location to prosper and led Outpost to open new sites: full stores on State Street in Wauwatosa (2000), on Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View (2005), and at Mequon and Wauwatosa roads in Mequon (May 2014), plus two market cafe locations (the lobbies of Aurora Sinai and Rite Hite YMCA), wholesale accounts with eight area hospital and athletic club cafeterias that sell Outpost-branded “Good to Grow” foods, and catering.

Since 1990, ownership in Outpost has grown from 2,500 to more than 19,000 today, and sales have increased from $2.8 million to more than $40 million. The staff now numbers 500.

“When I set my mind to do something, I just do it,” Mehnert says modestly. But there is obviously more to the story.

One of Mehnert’s strengths is her management approach. “Pam’s style is very collaborative,” says Quinn, “but she can be a strong leader when she needs to be.” Adds Suzanne Garr, a member of the board of directors, “Pam is very approachable, very dedicated and diligent. She really cares about every aspect of the community, from the lighting in the stores to the relationship she has with employees and the board.”

The new assistant store manager at the Mequon location, Amy Lohmiller, loves the welcoming atmosphere there, and she credits Mehnert with setting the tone. “She is so comfortable and down-to-earth,” says Lohmiller, who previously worked for Roundy’s and Piggly Wiggly. “She treats you with dignity.”

Photo by Sara Stathas.

Mehnert’s commitment to maintaining good employee relations was put to the test during the 2008-2009 recession. As Will Kort, Outpost’s board president, recalls: “During that time, we only laid off one person. We did have a wage freeze and vacation cuts, but Pam made sure that the frozen wages and vacation time were paid back when the store became profitable again. She insisted that we weren’t going to lay people off during a time when everybody else was doing it.”

To do that, Mehnert had to work closely with Outpost’s union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1473. Outpost was unionized in 1980, which might seem odd in light of Outpost’s communal nature. “But a union relationship is kind of like a co-op,” Mehnert points out.

All parties involved have been trained in “win-win” bargaining. Formally called interest-based bargaining (IBB), it is an alternative to traditional bargaining that focuses on common interests rather than positions and opinions. Thanks to this approach, Outpost has never had a strike, and a new contract is often signed before the old one has expired. Outpost is proud of its living wage model: “We are trying to stay ahead of the minimum-wage discussion,” Mehnert says. Full-time jobs start at $10 an hour, and inexperienced and part-time people get $8.50 an hour to start, versus the national minimum wage of $7.25. New hires are trained and mentored during their first year to help them move up the pay scale.

A cornerstone of Mehnert’s approach is positioning Outpost as something more than a grocery store by establishing a wide net of relationships within the community. Just one example: Each year Outpost donates money to four local nonprofits and helps them raise additional funds. Partners in 2014 included the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center and the Victory Garden Initiative.

Co-ops aren’t for everyone. The prices are generally higher than at conventional food stores because high-quality, sustainably raised food is more expensive. Plus, co-ops need more employees on the floor to explain unfamiliar foods to customers who are switching from conventional ones. A natural foods retailer such as Whole Foods has national buying power that allows it to buy for less and thus sell for less.

Another criticism of co-ops is the narrower selection of products. “But how many different cereal choices do you need?” asks Joe Nolan, owner of Good Harvest Market in Pewaukee. “Pastas? We purposefully aren’t adding more grocery items so people don’t experience overload in our store.”

Elitism is another charge leveled at co-ops, and Mehnert admits there was a time when Outpost was perceived as exclusive. “The feedback we got was that it feels clubby, you had to be a member to shop there (not true) and the staff wasn’t very friendly,” she says. “We did a lot of hard work to change our culture to combat the perception.”

Outpost also has long-term partnerships with such groups as the Hunger Task Force and Walnut Way Conservation Corp. Outpost staff are active on their boards, and employees often roll up their sleeves to help with food drives and work days. Mehnert herself is a co-founder and board president of Local First Milwaukee, a business alliance that advocates for locally owned, independent businesses.

“One reason I have so much respect for Outpost is its care and concern for the communities in which the stores are based,” says board member Garr. “It is the essence of the democratic, co-operative model.”

To keep up the momentum, in 2012, the board developed its 2022 Vision for the co-op’s future, naming it Outpost’s High Five Strategies: Lively Neighborhood Markets, Dynamic Local Food Systems, Sustainable Solutions, Strong Community Partners and Amazing Places to Work.

For example, to establish more lively neighborhood markets by 2022 – and reach an annual sales goal of $75 million – Outpost likely will open new stores and explore other ways of selling food. It is increasing its work with local farmers and producers to reduce the miles food travels to market: less than 100 miles for 50 percent of its local food offerings and 75 percent from local or regional sources. Right now, that percentage is 32. In addition, the co-op intends to reduce its carbon footprint by 50 percent even as it grows.

“For each of the High Five, we wanted hairy, audacious goals to reach for,” Mehnert says.

In reflecting on her career at Outpost, Mehnert recognizes how she has grown along with the job. “My favorite part of my job is the strategic thinking part,” she says. “But I’ve changed. I now try to empower other people, not be the one to solve everybody’s problems. Tenacity was often my worst enemy.”

As for her own future, Mehnert acknowledges that she doesn’t want to work at Outpost forever. She has already started dreaming about a new venture, a CSB (community-supported bakery), where every week, subscribers get a different loaf of bread or bakery product. “I even have a name – Flying Squirrel Bakery,” she says. She’s also crafted a logo: a squirrel with a chef’s toque riding a biplane. “I’m just a bit of a weirdo,” she says. “I love quirky things.”

Carolyn Kott Washburne is a Milwaukee-area freelancer. Write to her at letters@milwaukeemag.com.

This story appears in the October, 2014, issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to subscribe.