By Bjorn Bergman, Viroqua Food Co-op Outreach Coordinator
Every March, Viroqua Food Co-op celebrates spring and its amazing P6 farmers and producers by hosting an Annual Principle Six (P6) Tailgate Party. The event is exactly what the word ‘tailgate’ invokes: a big party in a parking lot that includes eating grilled food. Instead of cheering for a favorite sports team, attendees learn about and sample products from a variety of P6 producers (local, co-op, and small) that supply the VFC with amazing food and products. This party is VFC’s way to showcase our P6 program by putting the spotlight on a number of P6 producers that are at the heart of what we do best at our Co-op.
Origins of our Tailgate Party
For years, Viroqua Food Co-op hosted a CSA Open House at our store every March. While the event was a great way for owners and shoppers meet the farmers supplying our store with produce and learn about area CSA farms, it didn’t generate much increased foot traffic or increased sales for our store. We wanted to have a bigger event with more producer and community involvement and connection to our Co-op’s mission. In the Fall of 2011, Viroqua Food Co-op began integrating P6 into our store. We recognized the value of P6 as a vehicle to communicate with owners and customers more than just how food was produced (i.e. local, organic). P6 allows us to showcase the ‘who’ behind the products in our Co-op (i.e. co-op, non-profit organization, small), which we feel help us better achieve our mission.
After labeling P6 products in our store, we were looking for a way to kick off our P6 program and introduce it in a meaningful way to our owners and shoppers. We wanted to have a party that focused on our P6 program and brought more people into our store. At this party, we wanted to invite between 10-15 P6 producers to sample their food and products. Our small 4400 square foot store couldn’t hold that many sampling producers while allowing people to shop. A store vendor brought up the idea of setting up a tent in our parking lot for the producers to sample in. With all of these ideas colliding, we decided to host a P6 themed event in a tent in our parking lot that took the place of our annual CSA Open House. The only question that remained was what we should call the event? Since Viroqua Food Co-op is located in the heart of Wisconsin, our culture is immersed in consuming lots of cheese and brats while cheering on our favorite sports teams, which lends itself to the state pastime of Tailgating (having a party with your friends in a parking lot). Why not have a P6 Tailgate Party that celebrates our P6 producers and brings together our community?
Nuts and Bolts
We aim to have our P6 Tailgate Party on either the third or fourth Saturday each March from 10am-2pm. Our hope is that that all the snow will be melted and it will be at least 40°F outside by this time in Southwestern Wisconsin. Additionally, this is typically a slower time for community events in our town, so we hope to get a better turn out. We rent a heated 40×20 foot tent with sidewalls from our local rental center. Inside the tent, we have tables for 12-16 P6 producers to sample and talk with customers. We make sure we invite P6 producers from every department of our store (including CSA Farms) so that attendees can experience the many different types of P6 farmers/producers that supply our Co-op. A full list of the producers at our 2015 P6 Tailgate Party can be found here. We also have a number of prize drawings that attendees can enter. In 2015, we had a P6 Prize Basket full of P6 products you can find in our store and A Year’s Worth of Free Organic Valley Milk, which was donated by Organic Valley. In true tailgating fashion, the VFC Deli grills out during the event. Their menu features a variety of P6 foods like Wisconsin Meadows burgers and Organic Prairie hot dogs, and brats and deli sides like potato salad and coleslaw.
A Beneficial Community Event
Our P6 Tailgate Party is always a successful event for our Co-op, our community, and, most importantly, our P6 producers. The event increases foot traffic and sales at our Co-op. In 2015, our P6 Tailgate Party brought in 15% higher sales for our store as compared to a typical Saturday in March. Additionally, products that were sampled at our 2015 P6 Tailgate Party saw a collective 378% increase in sales when compared to sales of those same products the Saturday prior to the event.
Our owners and customers seek to attend the event and connect more with what P6 after attending. We prominently advertise our P6 Tailgate Party in the community, including on the front cover of our newsletter, in the local newspapers, on the radio, and on social media. Many community members make a point to attend to connect with and try samples from our local, co-op, and small producers. The event leads to more people understanding the P6 message. When we had our first P6 Tailgate Party in March of 2012, many attendees were being introduced to P6 for the first time. After three years of putting on the event, increasing the presence of P6 messaging in our store, and always featuring P6 in our Newsletter, customers and owners are really beginning to connect to what P6 means. One owner recently told me that she really appreciates seeing P6 labels in the store because it allows her to support producers that are helping create a more just, cooperative, and local food system in our future.
Most importantly, the P6 Tailgate Party is a huge way to support our P6 producers, which are at the heart of our Co-op, working to create a more just and resilient local and cooperative food economy. Producers are extremely excited and thankful to get an opportunity to have a sampling and info table at the event. One of our 2015 P6 Producer attendees Tiffany Cade from Deep Rooted, our main tomato supplier commented, “It was so nice to meet some of the customers who buy our tomatoes at the co-op it was also so nice to hear so many great things about how people use them and are looking forward to them this year.” Now in our third year, prior to the event we get numerous requests from our P6 producers to sample at our Tailgate Party. We now aim to have a different set of P6 producers at the event each year so that new P6 Producers get an opportunity to attend the event each year.
Now with our 3rd Annual P6 Tailgate Party on the books, I can honestly say that our P6 Tailgate Party is Viroqua Food Co-ops cornerstone event each year. Yes, this event could be put on with a ‘local’ theme, but I don’t think it would have the same impact. Having P6 be the main focus of our Tailgate helps us highlight more than local – it helps us recognize the importance of co-op, non-profits, and small producers in creating a more just and equitable food system. Since starting our P6 program, we are doing a much better job at telling the story of our work to create a more just and responsible food system.