Strategic Alliances and Consolidations:

New competition. Shrinking margins. Tighter supply. Rising labor costs. Saturated advertising. Poaching of great employees. Competing in the natural- foods market place is just plain hard. 

As the market’s “new normal” intensifies with the rush of conventional retail players and new competition into our traditional space, there has been increasing interest in exploring the strategy of Principle Six: cooperation among cooperatives.  

First Impressions and Long-lasting Relationships:

Providing an unbeatable shopping experience is no longer optional for cooperatives—it is imperative. In the growing and increasingly competitive world of natural foods, cooperatives need to perform better than their competitors, especially in providing outstanding customer service. Customer service is one of the key areas where cooperatives can differentiate themselves from other natural-foods stores. 

Co-op’s Parking Lot Solar Reduces Energy Costs and Impacts

The use of energy-efficient, environmentally sensitive design has been a part of BriarPatch Co-op’s store on Sierra College Drive since its construction in 2006, when the co-op stepped up and built a LEED-certified “green” building. Located in Grass Valley, Calif., the co-op’s operations are humming, with a staff of 210 and a facility of 8,856 retail square feet supporting sales of $29.4 million in 2015.

Co-op Solar Energy in Cloudy Bellingham

The Pacific Northwest: home to towering trees, majestic mountains, beautiful islands…and a lot of cloudy days. In 2013, ranked Bellingham, Wash., as the city of over 50,000 people in the lower 48 states with the lowest number of sunny days. On average, it is sunny roughly 35 percent of the year—a good indication of why there are so many direct flights from Bellingham to various Hawaiian islands in the winter months. 

Growing Leaders from Within

As co-ops evolve and expand and our industry continuously changes, it’s important that we have mechanisms in place that enable employees to see career pathways within our organizations. 

Opportunities to learn new things and grow within the organization are important for everyone on the co-op staff roster. If their training ends after 90 days, you probably have some less-than-satisfied employees. 

A Tale of Two Co-ops

East Aurora Community Market (East Aurora, N.Y.) and BisMan Community Food Co-op (Bismarck, N.D.) are startup co-ops to be proud of. They both opened in spring 2016, and they both have longtime project managers who are now in management positions. 

Like most startup organizers, Sheila Conboy in East Aurora and Heidi DeMars in Bismarck had no retail grocery experience before they became part of their co-op’s steering committee. Nevertheless, they led their co-ops to successful openings and have now taken important roles in their co-op’s operations. 

A Visit to Great Basin Community Food Co-op

During the past month, I had the chance to visit Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno, Nevada. Heading into the Yosemite and the Mono Lake area for a few precious days of long-planned family hiking, my “first-things-first” instinct was to visit the nearest food co-op. We needed vegetables, protein, and local berries.

There’s something so exciting about visiting a co-op you’ve never seen before, right? And it’s thrilling to make contact with others working to create these warm and welcoming stores.

Begun in 2005, Great Basin opened its current location in 2012. Nestled in the heart of Reno, it stands in contrast to the banks and other mid-sized high-rises down the street. Easy to access, it’s a unique stucco building surrounded by garden landscaping. Sunflowers wave in the cool elevated air, green tomatoes ripen on the vine. The smell of fresh herbs is bracing. 

When we arrived, a number of customers were socializing on the patio around large wooden tables, eating lunches from the in-house co-op kitchen. Paintings on the outdoor walls emphasize the store’s connection to the earth. “Everyone welcome” is written over the front door. Inside, there’s a beautiful produce section and a fresh-juice bar. 

I spoke with Operations Manager Andrew Yochum, who told me that Great Basin is one of the fastest growing food co-ops in the nation. Sales are again up this year (24 percent to date), with sustained and impressive growth powering the co-op throughout its history. The staff includes 26 core players.

An upper level holds a vibrant wellness section, office space, and a currently under-renovation community room. The place was buzzing and soul-sustaining.

Playing the local ground game

The history of the relatively young Great Basin Community Food Co-op (GBCFC) echoes that of many food co-op startups today. It began as a buyers’ club, with the goal of increasing community access to affordable, sustainable, and wholesome food. 

Initially associated with a cooperative local food program known as the Great Basin Basket, GBCFC continues to be deeply connected with its local foodshed through its DROPP program: Distributors of Regional and Organic Produce and Products.

Two sisters, Amber and Nicole Sallaberry, were founders and first champions of the store. Amber continues as general manager, and Nicole serves as the sustainability and local food coordinator (including the DROPP program), helping build the northern Nevada infrastructure for local, organic, and non-GMO food.

The DROPP program includes a website where farmers, rangers, and producers offer local products for sale, to be delivered to GBCFC. Customers are able to place orders online, and it’s easy for producers to become affiliated with the co-op. DROPP bulk orders are advertised on bi-weekly sales flyers, along with in-store specials such as Field Day products and clearly labeled deals from the co-op’s kitchen. 

Co-ops are an eco-system

My visit to Great Basin underscored a thought I’ve held recently—that co-ops are part of a larger eco-system that includes valuable interactive “store organisms” of various sizes. The more we understand that, the easier it will be for us to remain flexible and competitive, forging the new connections and finding the strategies we need to survive, thrive, educate, and serve our shoppers. 

An ecosystem point of view allows us to continually test and reshape our current boundaries. It demands that we think about both our local foodshed and our national (let’s face it: our international) food system. It underscores the value of getting out and tramping around a bit, getting our feet dirty. 

As locavores, we are exploratory. We become familiar with the terrain wherever we happen to be walking. At the same time, our food co-op ecosystem connects us with people holding similar values all over the world.

Like all businesses today, we face new competitive challenges. Some of them have evolved because the big ideas we represent have taken root in the broader culture. Shoppers want healthier food, and communities are embracing more sustainable options. There is more awareness of the co-op business model, and more criticism of big ag and of large corporations. Many aspects of our culture are in transformation. 

Yes, it’s disruptive. And the solutions we find won’t take just one shape. They reflect global, national, and local realities. In some places, our best stores are the small or mid-sized ones, where we clearly offer more local connections than you’ll find in the large chains, with their private-label “mystery” food.

The premise of Cooperative Grocer Network is that all of our food co-op efforts—those that are experimental, those that need improvement, and those that are resounding successes—have significance. We learn from one another.

That juice bar—oh, my!

By the time we left Great Basin, we’d loaded our cart with the food needed for a week of vacation. Our cashier told us what brought her from the Netherlands to Nevada (love!), and we picked up a returnable Mason jar filled with fresh carrot juice.

Said one of the juicemasters, Isabella Jacobs, “It’s something customers wanted, and the staff loves it, too.” Another benefit of the fresh juice and smoothie bar? Waste in the produce section is now virtually nonexistent. 

Visit their beautiful website to learn more about Reno’s Great Basin Community Food Co-op, including their strategies for improving access to local goods produced within the watershed of the Truckee, Carson, and Walker Rivers: ♦

A Woman’s Place Is…the Co-op!

When it comes to food co-ops, our success will depend on giving women what they want and hoping they’ll speak well about the experience.

At least that’s what I’ve figured out (finally!) after some 40 years of watching our food co-ops evolve from counter-cultural roots. No matter what my vantage point—whether as shopper, trucker, board member, designer, publisher, or Cooperative Grocer Network manager—it’s clear our food co-ops are primarily used, promoted, and led by women.