(First published in the June 6, 2019 issue of City Pages)
The 130-year-old Altenburg Dairy building will become an exciting new hub for foodie business
Jim Altenburg, Sarah Jo More (The Main Grain Bakery), and Oren Jakobson (Upstream Cider) are excited about the prospect of the turning an old industrial building in a local food version of the Milwaukee Public Market.
Things were starting to heat up between Jim Altenburg and the city.
The owner of Altenburg Dairy, a milk distributor to school districts and other commercial interests, operates in a historic building in Stevens Point. It’s on Madison Street, about two blocks away from Carl D’s and Belt’s, two local competing ice cream shops, and Skipp’s Bowling Center, in the southern end of the city before it turns into Whiting. The building dates back to the 19th century, and like many buildings that age, is starting to fall apart.
This past winter was especially harsh on buildings, and the Altenburg Dairy was no exception. It needs a new roof and truss system, and the brickwork is starting to fail. The city was on the verge of condemnation so it could be razed.
It’s always unfortunate when a handsome historic building comes down. Folks tend come out of the woodwork with ideas on how to save it. Such was the case with the former Eagle Plumbing building once located just north of downtown Stevens Point. It had been a car garage dating back to the days when it was considered embarrassing to have your car in the shop, and featured a lift that brought cars to the second story to be worked on. Plans came and went to turn the building in an eco-friendly apartment complex. Ultimately the building was condemned and torn down for safety.
The same might have happened to the 130-year-old Altenburg Dairy building, where four of the dozen or so employees of the company work regularly (the rest are out in the field most of the time, Altenburg says). Instead, a bold new plan is in the works to turn the large structure into not only a vibrant building, but something unique: a local food space that’s both a market for customers and a cooperative production facility for local food businesses.
The fact that there’s enough of a local food industry to create such a coop is largely due to the efforts of Farmshed, a locally-based nonprofit food organization. In a relatively short number of years, Farmshed has grown to become a hub for education about local food systems, has helped people learn growing techniques, pooled resources, and it has become an incubation center for several food related businesses and programs.
The idea for turning the Altenburg Dairy building into a coop came out of the local food fair, which Farmshed has grown from a small weeknight event in the Stevens Point Area High School to an enormous event in the SentryWorld grounds. President of CREATE Portage County Bill Schierl approached Altenburg with the plan after attending the local food fair, then brought in Layne Cozzolino, director of Farmshed.
The result? The R.A. Cook and J.I. Altenburg Cooperative, a space dedicated to both local food production and retail sales. It’s the only example of such a business in the central Wisconsin area.
“I’ve driven past the [Altenburg Dairy] building for the past 30 years and have always had an affinity for it,” Schierl says. “I wondered if the Altenburg building could be a home for these businesses that would not only bring vibrancy back to a unique part of the city but save the building in the process.”
A local food hub
Upstream Cider is one of the inaugural participants of the R.A. Cook and J.I. Altenburg Cooperative
One of the most impressive parts of the coop plan is how it brings together long-established Stevens Point businesses and new ones getting their start or looking to expand.
One of the oldest participants is the Stevens Point Area Coop grocery store, which will mostly use the Altenburg building for warehouse storage space. That’s a big deal. The space will meet a critical need and allow the store to purchase in bigger quantities, because right now its Fourth Street location has little storage space. That will be even more critical as the Coop eyes expansion of its store.
The Cook and Altenburg Cooperative will also be the new home of Main Grain Bakery, currently located next to Emy J’s. This business started with a partnership of three friends, and now founder Sarah Jo More runs a booming business of 12 bakers, making everything in the sourdough style. Main Grain keeps growing and needs its next location to continue that growth, More says. Main Grain products can be found at restaurants, shops and markets throughout central Wisconsin.
The cooperative will house Siren Shrub, which creates sipping vinegars used primarily in gourmet cocktail drinks, and is the brainchild of Cozzolino and Mindy McCord. Shrubs is the term for this vinegar that dates back to the colonial days and is making a comeback. Cozzolino plans to step down from her role as director of Farmshed to devote herself full time to growing Siren Shrubs. Moving into the Cook and Altenburgh coop is a key part of that plan.
And if you haven’t heard of Upstream Cider, you probably will soon. Founded by Oren Jakobson and Polly Dalton (Dalton was just elected to Stevens Point City Council), Upstream specializes in hard cider fermented naturally. That means no added yeast. Instead, with good quality apples they press themselves and the right technique, the fermentation process happens through the natural microbes, resulting in a dry, tasty fizzy cider. Upstream Cider right now is being made at a commercial wine coop in Viroqua (just outside Madison). The new coop will allow Upstream to produce right in Stevens Point.
Tapped Maple Syrup, a Stevens Point based business that makes maple syrup fused with all manner of flavors such as cardamom, hops and even ginseng (and they make a whiskey barrel aged syrup), will also become part of the cooperative. Also joining the venture is Primitive Pastures, a local farm that raises beef, pork and chicken eggs using highly managed rotational grazing practices. Both businesses will use kitchen production space and warehouse storage at the coop.
Inaugural participant of the R.A. Cook and J.I. Altenburg Cooperative: Layne Cozzolino and Mindy McCord, founders of Siren Shrub
The red brick industrial building was built around 1892 by R.A. Cook, says Stevens Point historian and author Wendell Nelson. The site first served as Central City Iron Works, and underwent a few expansions before the founder of Central City Iron Works retired. The building had also housed a foundry that built saw blades, engines, boilers, “you name it,” Nelson says.
The building went through a few other owners before becoming a tractor factory, which was almost a complete failure, Nelson says. The business only turned out five tractors before being closed, and was mired in lawsuits for decades. “It was a flop,” Nelson says.
The building survived fires in the 1910s and in 1959. Jim Altenburg’s father bought the building in 1931. During the Jim Altenburg’s ownership, his wife Betsy owned a little ice cream shop on site. Betsy died in August.
The building has been Altenburg Dairy since 1987. The business now operates only in a small section of the building. The rest was walled off due to structural issues; access is open only to licensed contractors for safety reasons.
But while the building has been declining, Farmshed has grown to become the hub of the exploding local food scene in central Wisconsin. Under the leadership of Cozzolino as executive director, Farmshed found its home in the former Sorenson’s greenhouse across the street from where the former Stevens Point mall once was. In the greenhouse, rented from famed Stevens Point author Pat Rothfuss, Farmshed has been building its local programs.
Farmshed publishes its Farm Fresh Atlas every year, which contains a listing of every local farm in central Wisconsin. It helped Stevens Point’s farmers market become one of the first to accept EBT food share tokens (that was discontinued this year for lack of participation and high administration costs). Farmshed hosts the Frozen Assets program, which works with local farmers to freeze veggies picked at the peak of growing season and allows people to buy these frozen packages in shares similar to a community supported agriculture program (CSA).
It hosts the Growing Collective, a group of more than 60 gardeners who grow plants that are sold to raise money for Farmshed. The organization also organizes various workshops, a weekly potluck and a farmers tribute dinner.
The Main Grain Bakery is another inaugural participant of the R.A. Cook and J.I. Altenburg Cooperative
Farmshed’s biggest public effort: the annual local food fair, which grew from a small weeknight affair to a giant convention at Sentry World, with more than 70 local food vendors, chef competitions and food samples.
In a sense, the new Cook and Altenburg Cooperative is the product of Farmshed’s growth, a collection of food businesses spawned from the culture of local food.
The cooperative building project will happen in two phases, Cozzolino says. The first phase is getting the brickwork, trusses and roof repaired. This will, they hope, be done this year before the snow flies, Cozzolino says. The next phase will see the retail space and commercial kitchen built.
Under the deal, Altenburg would donate the land and building to the coop, probably for $1.
Besides sharing space, the cooperative can share employees too. As Siren Shrub expands, they want to bring production in house—right now an outside company produces the vinegars they developed. But they wouldn’t have enough work for employees year around. Having shared staff through the coop would help provide labor year-round with flexibility, Cozzolino says.
Jim Altenburg has been meeting with the inaugural partners on the new coop every Friday. The 80-year-old business owner is the oldest person in the room by several decades, but the young entrepreneurs have given him new life and new hope for the future. The cooperative’s business owners are all hardworking, something Altenburg says energizes him. “It’s exciting to see their enthusiasm,” Altenburg says. “I’m at the end of my run.”
Altenburg says Oren Jakobson, of Upstream Ciders, has done wonders planning the logistics of the renovation work on the building, doing the research and coming to Altenburg with solutions. That’s important, because early estimates put the project at anywhere from $600,000 to $4 million. “That’s how big the range is,” Altenburg says. Because it uses just a small portion of the building, Altenburg Dairy will remain there as the now vacant spaces fill with new coop businesses.
Jakobson has helped find creative solutions to keep costs low. One example: reaching out to Amish builders. “The more people we get involved, the more enthusiasm seems to grow,” Altenburg says.
Cozzolino says the building and the project itself means a lot to Altenburg and has restored his faith in the city. “When we first met him, he was kind of feeling like his community wasn’t what it used to be,” Cozzolino says. “Through the process, I hope Jim sees what I think is great about Stevens Point: That it is community oriented, that people here care about seeing each other succeed. I hope when it’s all said and done, that he feels that.”
Seeing the smile on Altenburg’s face and the light in his eyes as he talks with other members of the coop gathered in his wood-paneled office on Madison Street, it’s apparent that’s already the case.