Food Co-op Triples Its Size

The Food Co-op of Port Townsend, Washington

Store location: Port Townsend, northwest Washington. Challenged by rising local demands for natural food and organic produce as well as an ever-expanding membership, the Food Coop embarked upon a store expansion that began as the vision of a few hard workers and blossomed into a groundbreaking reality for many.

After 22 years of operating out of a tiny (3,400 sq. ft.) former bus station, both the co-op membership and its board of directors agreed that large measures would have to be taken to keep pace with the steadily growing natural foods market. Realizing that an expansion could not be undertaken in the existing location, the board set in motion a process that called upon the resources and ingenuity of co-op members and the outlying community.

The co-op's search for a new home led it to the town's defunct bowling alley, a building that had already been twice leased to major corporations, first to the drug store chain Rite-Aid and then to the Portland-based chain Hollywood Video. Both corporations had opted out of leasing the building after a swell of opposition from local citizens. Many Port Townsend residents, concerned with the growing influence of chain stores over small town economies, had formed a group named "Rite is Wrong" and campaigned against major corporate chain stores coming to this independent-minded town.

When the Food Coop set its sights on the location, both the building's hard-pressed owners and the town sensed a perfect fit, a triumphant ending to the community's fight to preserve the local economy from outside influences. With this new location in mind, many hurdles still had to be overcome by the co-op, especially in terms of vision and leadership. Briar Kolp, the co-op's general manager, stated "The board was smart enough to know that they didn't have to take on this project by themselves, and allowed the project team to do the work." The project team, headed up by Kolp, included a store/site designer, construction project manager, grocery store planner, real estate agent, and the landlord.

The coop's challenge became how to generate an estimated $800,000 to finance the move. On the advice of Bill Gessner, we made an enthusiastic presentation to members, suggesting that funds be raised internally through low-interest loans from members. The drive turned into a major success. Other resources, from finances to labor to equipment, were soon rolling into the co-op, either free of charge or at greatly discounted prices, as word of the coop's efforts and the resulting community spirit spread.

"The Bellingham Co-op and the Ravenna PCC (Seattle) were very generous in providing us with shelving and check stands, and most of our other fixtures came greatly discounted from other grocery stores," said Kolp. Many of the professionals working with the co-op also chose to either waive or reduce their fees or take payment in unconventional ways, such as payment through groceries. "Our attorney is taking her payment through beets!" said Kolp with a laugh.

A wonderfully synchronistic piece of the professional puzzle fell into place in the person of Vern Leckman, a local, world-renowned architect and designer, who used to drive by the unloved building regularly and redesign it in his mind. When the co-op asked Leckman if he might be interested in designing the building, both parties were pleasantly surprised to realize that the 78-year-old Leckman was already on the job.

Leckman took charge of the design of the entire store, from color scheme to landscaping, organically restructuring what had been a "cinder-block shoebox" into a visually alive part of the town's landscape. Leckman's plan relied on the innovative use of a large arbor, which will eventually cover the naturally toned exterior of the store in Virginia creeper, grape vines, climbing roses, and clematis. Inside, he opened the space to natural light and splashed the walls with the colors of ripe fruit, completing the vibrant scheme with a daring, multi-colored tile floor.

With leadership and funding in place, the co-op still faced the challenge of renovating the new building while maintaining steady business at the original store, whose sales continued to swell.  As the new coop drew nearer, an upsurge of excitement gave staff members the energy to run two sites simultaneously and to successfully transition from one building to the other.

Fifteen months after active efforts toward expansion began, the Port Townsend Food Co-op opened the doors of its new home on April 7. Since the move, sales have more than doubled and membership is up by over 15%.. "It happened," said Kolp, "because all the right people were there at the right time and trusted each other to do the work."


Food Co-op:  Port Townsend, Washington

[former location / new location (4/7/2001)]

Size (retail):  1,800 sq. ft. / 8,000 sq. ft.

Size (total):  3,4000 sq. ft. / 10,800 sq. ft.

Weekly sales:  $43,000 / $90,000

Customers/week:  2,450 / 4,760

Average transaction:  $15.00 / $19.00

Staff:  32 / 70

Member owners:  7,000 / 8,000

Relocation project costs:  $666,000


Rebecca Mizhir is a member of the Food Co-op in Port Townsend, Washington.

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