Had enough of pandemic panic? Try Wild Oats Market instead

Anna Berti scans grocery items for customer Reed Foehl at Wild Oats Market in Williamstown; a Plexiglas partition separates them, one of many new measures put in place there since the pandemic began. Visit the market in person or online at wildoats.coop, or call 413-458-8060.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — You saw the panic buying on TV; some of you might have even lived through it: The scrambling. The stockpiling. The empty shelves.

At Wild Oats Market, the pandemic hasn't been like that at all.

"Wild Oats sources food differently than mainstream supermarkets, so we were able to keep shelves stocked," says Scott Menhinick, marketing and owner relations manager for Wild Oats, a cooperative market since 1982.

So the long lines, the fights, the absence of meat? "We were lucky to avoid some of the stranger parts that have happened. We didn't have any of that," he says.

Truth be told, Wild Oats did get a little low with flour and toilet paper, Menhinick concedes, but that was about it, the pandemic experience in a nutshell for the market's customers.

Open nonstop since the outbreak began, the market feels normal to people, although calling customers by name is a bit tougher since mask-wearing took hold, Menhinick says.

"It's a different experience for customers, because they own the store. It's not that people weren't freaked out by the virus; it's just a different kind of environment," says Menhinick.

Did you say the customers own the market?

On Route 2 in Williamstown near the North Adams line, Wild Oats Market — the only co-op in Northern Berkshire — is a destination for shoppers who want to make sure their money gets spent with some local meaning behind it. In the case of this business, it's mission-driven to being a community pillar.

"We're local, we keep our money local, and we work with a lot of local organizations. All your money stays in the community," says Menhinick.

As a cooperative, Wild Oats operates much like a nonprofit business, with the focus being getting wholesome goods to customer members and visitors alike. Business operations are supported by a small member fee and grocery sales, and it's sole purpose is to serve its customers and community.

Unlike a nonprofit, however, "If we're profitable, co-op members would get a dividend," notes Menhinick, an incentive to sign up.

Easy and affordable to join

Becoming a member-owner is easy and affordable, with equity payments of $20 a year for 10 years or one lump sum of $200.

Once you've joined, there's no obligation to do anything beyond enjoying Wild Oats like you would a regular grocery store, except with the focus on local foods. But, if you want, there are avenues where you can also serve on the board or vote to change bylaws and policies.

"If you believe in the same values we do, you can help support us and help the community come together to make things happen," says Menhinick.

When you become a member-owner, you get to shop your values with fairly traded and locally produced goods: That's great if you like to live green and sustainably, reducing your carbon footprint and participating in the Berkshire economy, all while stocking up on your artisanal meats and cheeses.

"If you're trying to change the world with your shopping habits, then this is the place that you can really double down on that. It allows these sustainable practices to count and flourish, and provides food from local farms, artisans and businesses. This is where you do that. Other places are not going to keep your money in the community," notes Menhinick.

For everyone and anyone

For folks who just want to test the waters, that's fine, because nonmembers can shop there, too.

"Everyone can shop; anyone can join," says Menhinick.

For customers receiving SNAP or WIC benefits, they can get 10 percent off their groceries through the Healthy Food for All Program.

There's another difference between Wild Oats and the big markets: No limits on purchases that's the alternative food supply chain at work.

Curbside and in-store shopping continue, and Menhinick says, now more than three months into the pandemic, that people are doing a lot more in-person shopping and less online. At its height during the outbreak, the store peaked at about 80 online orders a day.

Like many businesses, Wild Oats Market had a pre-existing comprehensive flu plan in place. In conjunction with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisories and government directives, the store implemented new routines and systems.

Staff stepped up to make everything run smoothly; the teamwork and cooperation throughout the store has been one of the driving forces in Wild Oats' ability to continue to serve the community, says Menhinick.

Like all essential food businesses in the commonwealth, Wild Oats has shifted away from open bar foods to sealed and prepackaged deli items, as well as baked goods.

Keeping it clean

Cleaning continues regularly based on CDC guidelines. "Because we do food prep, we're used to doing things at a level that most people wouldn't do at their homes," notes Menhinick. Measures such as Plexiglas screens at checkouts, cleaning after every customer, having staff masked and gloved, and sanitizer stations are all part of regular operations now.

Not having a sophisticated online ordering system yet, Wild Oats does it the semi-old-fashioned way: an online form, with the customer listing all their grocery needs, and an employee on the other end being a personal shopper. Menhinick says some of the larger orders — say, $500 and up — can take about an hour to process; this service is weekdays only.

He says it's an involved process, with the market's 10,000 different products, including 2,500 items — produce, beer, cheese and more — that are locally sourced.

In its modest aisles and counters, shoppers might find a French press mug or wellness-based products, as well as local meats from sustainable sources, such as Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock or East Mountain Farm in Williamstown.

"We don't call ourselves a specialty store, but we're a place where you can get stuff you can't get anywhere else," says Menhinick.

A particular set of values

The market, like all food cooperatives, adheres to a particular set of values, including commerce that involves fair trade, environmental concerns, a preponderance of organic food products, as well as supporting and enhancing community life.

And, when it comes down to it, Wild Oats is also the place where you can get some finer things, such as La Riojana, an Argentinian wine found only in fair-trade cooperatives, says Menhinick. There's that, and much more, he says. It's this kind of variety that has earned the market's produce section Best of the Berkshires No. 1 status for the past two years.

"People come to us for vegan- and gluten-free, artisan cheeses, local farm meats, raised responsibly," says Menhinick. "We have an award-winning produce section. We know the people who are growing that food, so we have that personal connection. Even if everything isn't organic, we know how it's grown. We take our member-owners to visit them to see where their food really comes from."

Also known for its bulk selection bins, Menhinick says this feature gives customers the benefit of choosing their own quantity, for such items as beans, rice and spices, while also helping them stay within their affordability window. "You can get as much or as little as you want."

Honored as essential

The Northern Berkshire community has been great through the pandemic, says Menhinick, and the store was honored with a drive-by parade by a few dozens community members, showing their appreciation for the grocery workers, friends and family, who became overnight frontline workers during the pandemic.

"It certainly brought the community together and brought us closer together," says Menhinick of the goodwill within the store and without.

It goes both ways, as Wild Oats also likes to let the community knows it cares, too, by supporting many local schools, nonprofits and food insecurity programs through donations, partnerships and fundraisers, such as Round Up for Change, in which shoppers can round up their grocery bill dollar amount, and pass the remainder in full to a featured organization working here in the Berkshires.

This kind of community commitment is written into the bedrock of the cooperative. It's not your average market, it's sustainable, and that's why Wild Oats is looking forward to serving the Berkshire community now and in the future.

"Wild Oats was a buyers club before it was cooperative, a community group that turned into a store. We were created by the community, for the community," says

Menhinick. "We're here when you need us."

Visit the market in person at 320 Main St. (Route 2), or go online at wildoats.coop. Call 413-458-8060 for more information.