By JAN WILLMS
As spring beckons around the corner, the Hampden Park Co-op at 928 Raymond Ave. is looking forward to its busy season. Greg Junge, who took over as general manager last August, said he has been working under a fast learning curve.
“There have been a lot of immediate things that had to happen, and I have stayed very focused,” he noted. “The store needed to be more profitable.”
Faced with the recession, light rail construction on University Ave. and additional road construction on Raymond Ave., the co-op has struggled the past year. But with the support of its members, customers and the community, the Hampden Park Co-op is reviving.
Members had been asked to voluntarily return some of their discounts, and Junge said that to date the co-op has received $4,000 in returned discount money.
“This just shows the strength of the cooperative,” he said.
A new floor has been installed in the kitchen, an upgrade that was a necessity.
“We’ve become more efficient, using tools that are available to us in the co-op world,” Junge said.
The general manager of the River Market Co-op in Stillwater, along with some of his staff, conducted a mini-audit. “They showed us what is working for them,” Junge said. “That has helped us in staying true to who we are.”
In adding some fresh paint to the walls and ceiling, the Hampden Park Co-op operators queried the members for input. “We received 108 comments with ideas about colors for the walls,” Junge said. The colors chosen were Navajo White, Rendezvous Blue and a burn orange. “These are colors we can use that will work with the building,” Junge added.
He said the history of the building is important and can’t be replaced.
But with his background in retail and the culinary arts, Junge is promoting new ideas for the co-op as well. The store has partnered with Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Mendota Heights and has brought in a student to serve an externship with the store.
“It’s the first time one of their externships has been with a deli,” Junge said. Caitlin Chanda is starting her third week of the three-month externship. She has completed all the classes of her 21-month program, and she is now devoting her full time to creating new salads and sandwiches for the Hampden Park Co-op.
Her instructor, Auggie Austreng, has suggested a few trends that are gaining headway in the culinary arts. He said that pig fat or lard is making a comeback, with people tending to use that instead of Crisco. Oysters are being spotlighted, and seaweed is gaining popular use in soups, sauces and vegetable dishes. He sees flavored honey, yogurt and hummus being used more frequently in recipes.
Chanda said she has been creating dishes at the Co-op using ingredients that people don’t generally cook with, such as pasta with dried seaweed in the pasta dough to add color and a subtle flavor.
“I’ve thought of an apple and celeriac slaw with maple or honey,” Chanda said. She is also considering stuffed mushrooms with either tofu or sausage, mixed with mozzarella, green onion and spices and topped with wonton strips for some crunch.
While Chanda will bring new creations to the deli, another new factor in the co-op is renting the space above the store to the Twin Cities Aikido Center, a well known martial arts school.
“It’s a good fit,” said Junge. While martial arts strengthen the body and mind, the co-op can provide a lot of nutrients. “The parents can shop while the students are attending classes,” he said. “This can also bring exposure to the co-op.”
While working on innovations at the co-op, Junge has also been participating in the community, joining a St. Paul advisory committee for development. The group has been discussing renovations to Hampden Park, as well as preparing for some further road construction on Raymond Ave. in the fall. Junge said he would like the co-op to have a voice in the community.
Junge said the cold weather has been rough on business, but he has scheduled a lot of the work on the co-op to be done during these frigid days.
“We have taken ideas from our membership base and have tried to listen carefully to what they and the community want,” Junge said. “There’s been a lot to get done, but everyone has participated. And I think we’re going to have a strong spring season.”