Soft opening at Market on the Hill shows great promise

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[June 25, 2020]  

This week, the work and determination of the citizens of Mount Pulaski to bring a grocery store back to town paid off. On Monday the Market on the Hill enjoyed a soft opening.

The store is open seven days a week. Monday through Saturday the hours will be 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. On Sunday, the store will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The food cooperative is owned by community investor/members who bought into the project. In all more than 125 members purchased shares or memberships early in the process in order to fund the market.

The effort officially began last fall with a large event for the public. Community leader Tom Martin sold the concept of a cooperative to the community and was rewarded with an outstanding response. In the first weekend, Market on the Hill sold nearly half of the shares it needed in order to begin the process.

At the opening meeting in September of last year, Martin shared that a store front had already been acquired and that initial plans for the remodel were in place. However, nothing could move forward without money. The goal was to raise $120,000 by selling shares of the cooperative and also memberships.

That weekend was the Mount Pulaski Fall Festival.  The store front was opened to the public, sketches of the floor plan for the store were on display and members of the temporary board spoke to people about the project. By the end of the weekend, Market on the Hill had acquired $60,000 in pledges for shares. Martin happily reported that was enough to go ahead and get started on the building projects.

Working with Sean Park of Western Illinois University in Macomb, the temporary board worked to moved forward with plans. There were many rules to forming a cooperative and the group had to follow those to the letter. Park served as the consultant for the board and helped design the business model and plan.

When everything was in place the membership elected a new board of directors. Andy Meister was elected as the board president and Shaun Tyson as vice-president.

Dean Park

At the Monday opening, Tyson and Park both visited with shoppers and observed the first day of business.

Shaun Tyson and Sam Brown

Store manager Sam Brown was busy all over the store as she kept an eye on the front of the building and helped out in the deli. Along with Brown there are five other employees who will be working in varying shifts.

For those of us who are a bit older and remember the old-time country stores, coming into the Market on the Hill will offer a little bit of a step back in time feeling, with some modern conveniences added.

Monday morning, Tyson said he was excited about the look of the building inside. He said that the committee for the interior design had done an excellent job, though he at first had his doubts about the pale blue shelving. He said he was in doubt, but open minded, and happy that he was because now that he sees the shelves with merchandise on them, they look just right for the store.

The wood shelves that line the walls are filled with products that are popular in most kitchens. Name-brand canned goods and dry goods are mixed with local products such as jams, jellies, chutney’s, salsa’s and pickles from Kathy’s Kitchen in Virginia, Illinois.

An additional display near the front of the store offers items from Sasse’s Apiary and maple products from Funks Grove.

In addition to well-known name brands such as Prairie Farms, the dairy case also features Illinois products. Oberweis Dairy out of North Aurora is one of the Illinois suppliers.

Another dairy supplier is Little Brown Cow. Little Brown Cow is very local, coming from Delavan and is managed by Don Wilterdink and his family.

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In the produce section there is an entire case dedicated to Hilltop Community Garden. Owned by Kyle Reed, the garden was started specifically for fresh produce to the Mount Pulaski Community. Reed working with Martin established a nine acre truck farm just off Route 54 near Mount Pulaski. In addition to open air vegetable plants, Reed also put up hoop or hot houses for year round vegetable production.

The market also provides fruits and vegetables that aren’t raised in the area such as bananas and pineapple. Apples and other fruits are also offered.

The meat case features a wide variety of frozen products raised by local livestock producers.

Pork products are coming from Huelskoetter Pork, managed by Vickie Huelskoetter of Beason. Beef products are coming from Tyson Farms, owned by board vice president Shaun Tyson and wife Kim of Chestnut.

The market also offers a small deli with a variety of salads, plus bulk meats and cheese that are sliced to order.

Customers can also order carry-out sandwiches and salads. The front of the store offers two comfortable seating areas where guests (when it is socially acceptable) can sit for a cup of coffee or enjoy the lunch they just purchased from the deli.

Monday morning Sean Park said that he could see the interest in the store was good. He felt like traffic had been steady for the soft opening. He said that when he took on the project with Martin and the board he had a great deal of confidence that the community would see it through. Now the future hope is that the store will continue to be supported by the community.

Tyson too was pleased with the way the morning was going. He noted too that shoppers had been steady and also that most seemed to be pleased with what they were able to find in the new store.

Park noted that Market on the Hill like many other food businesses had felt the sting of coronavirus. He said that stocking the shelves with some of the name brand products had been challenging due to availability from the suppliers.

Tyson, who has been with the project since even before it began talked about part of the reason this all came about. Tyson said that the local grocery store had closed in Mount Pulaski. At that time, the Tysons lived just south of Mount Pulaski. One evening as wife Kim was getting ready to fix supper she said she needed some green onions. Tyson said he was irritated by the fact that in order to give his wife what she needed, he would have to drive at least 20 minutes to Lincoln, spend 10 to 15 minutes in the store, then drive 20 minutes back home. He said to spend nearly an hour running out to get a bunch of green onions was just aggravating. He said something had to be done.

Of course, with Mount Pulaski being such a small community, the chain groceries were not interested in coming to town. The next idea was that if no one would come to town, then the town would have to figure out how to create its own food supply. The idea grew from there, and took off like lightning as the community got behind it and ultimately made it all happen.

Tyson and all the board are thankful for the support they have had getting the project off the ground. The board is pleased with the store, its staff, and its offerings to the community. They are hopeful that this week marks the turn of a new chapter for the community and that shoppers will continue to support the Market on the Hill.

Though a cooperative food source, the store is open to all with no membership required. With the support of the Mount Pulaski Business Association the store is offering 20 percent off on fresh produce now through September.

There will also be a Grand Opening celebration this Friday evening, June 26th starting at 6 p.m. The community is invited to attend and will also have the opportunity to sample some of the foods being sold at the store.

Market on the Hill is located at 125 South Lafayette in Mount Pulaski.

[Nila Smith]

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