The View from Oregon
I am writing this article from the top of the World...well Mount Hood, Oregon to be exact. My younger sister Amy is getting married and I am standing beside her while she says her marriage vows. Portland, Oregon is a beautiful city and, while I was there, I visited two food co-ops: Food Front and People’s.
I talked with them about their board, membership, by-laws, community, and expansion. In addition, I took a tour of the stores and looked at their inventory—how they merchandise, products that are local, interesting products that we don’t have. I really loved looking around. And like my fellow Willy Street Co-op Board member Ann Marie Waterhouse, I feel it is good to come home and know that we are a Co-op that is successful because of the vision of the Board, the dedicated and talented staff, the support of the membership, and, what I recently discovered, the importance of the community.
I emphasize the word “community”
Both co-ops are nestled in beautiful residential areas with a demographic similar to ours. Their customer base is primarily foot and bike traffic, as parking is minimal in both areas. Property values are through the roof in those communities, and just like Willy Street, lots of high-rise condos and warehouse apartments are being built and priced at a minimum of $200K. They have stiff competition with Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, and local specialty market chain Zupan’s. The concept of “loyalty cards” is more appealing to the new urban lifestyle than the membership investment of the co-op. Something to ponder with the anticipated opening of Trader Joe’s, and the Union Corners project. Our Co-op might have some competition in the future.
I spoke with Miles Uchida, Finance Manager at People’s Food Co-op. He has served on the board as the staff representative and currently sits in at regular board meetings for his position. They have a membership of 2,000 eligible voters. They are collectively governed and have a staff of 22 paid members. They have 90 to 100 HOOs, or Hands on Owners, that can receive five to fifteen percent discounts for work in the store. This is on top of their owner discount, which is four percent. Everyone is a vested member of the co-op; the full investment is $180, with a self-selected annual minimum of $30 a year. They have an “alternative investment application” for members that may be unable to afford the $30 payment. (Instead it is $10 per month for three months.) Their board of directors has nine seats, one of which is a staff member elected by the employees. This is a consensus-run board. Membership could also elect another staff member on the board. If that were to happen, they might modify their by-laws to keep the number of staff on the Board limited to two. The Board meets monthly for three hours that includes dinner in the community room.
People’s Food Co-op has several committees in which the membership can participate. They are Finance, Localization and Cooperation Organization, Outreach and Diversity Committee, Development Committee (vision for the co-op over the next five years), and Ghost committee (organizes agendas, task lists and calendars for the board.) In addition, they have a nominations committee that consists of three members-at-large, one board member, and one staff member. Each nominee is interviewed by the committee and recommended to the membership for the board elections.
They communicate to the members with emails, postcard mailers, ballot mailing, and staff members on the floor for person-to-person information. They offer to membership a weekly vendors/farmers’ market in the front courtyard that overflows into the street. Street musicians play in the courtyard as long as the management approves it, and every now and again they have wine and cider samplers in the store.
People’s underwent an expansion project three-and-a-half years ago. It gave the store a second story that houses the offices, staff kitchen and a big, beautiful community room with an outdoor patio. Their membership approved the decision to expand, but it took seven years for it to come to fruition. The membership recently approved a patronage refund to be given out end of 2007 with 78 percent in favor. To achieve this turnout took a year of active work from staff and board members. They researched other co-ops, held three outdoor forums and had an annual meeting in December.
In January they installed the new PoS (point-of-sale) system that the Wedge Co-op uses. It was developed by Tak Tang, recipient of the CCMA’s (Consumer Cooperative Management Association conference) Cooperative Innovator of the Year in 2005. The community room is open for any member to use free of charge, however, there is a percentage if one is teaching a class for money. The store has two cob walls as a part of Portland’s Village building convergence program.
Interesting items of inventory
Bulk Sea vegetables (dulse, nori, Kombu etc.), cut your own soap, bulk incense, bulk vegetarian jerky, bulk fig bars, beer and wine, vegan frosted organic donuts.
Food Front Co-op
At Food Front Co-op, I spoke with the General Manager Holly Jarvis. Incidentally, she was the recipient of the Cooperative Service Award at the CCMA conference last year. Their membership is 2,900 and all are vested members at $150 a share or $25 per year for six years. They have a staff of 55 that work 20 hours or more and seven or eight on-call substitutes. Instead, members may volunteer to work at co-op events, work on the newsletter, serve on appointed task forces, or run for the board of directors. Their board can have up to 11 members, however they would like to change that number to nine. Currently their board has seven members. Members can elect staff with a limit of two because of unionization. (The co-op has been unionized for 10 years.) The Board meets monthly along with two retreats, the annual training session and the annual planning session.
I talked with them about their by-laws and Holly cut me off right away. “I don’t even want to comment on our by-laws. They’re old, long and you can’t understand the language.” The current by-laws are over 30 years old and over 30 pages long. The board is working on throwing them out and starting from scratch. The have been using PCC in Seattle as a model for how their by-laws should look.
They give to area non-profits with a Bean Bag program. Each bag you bring to bag your groceries is worth five cents to an area non-profit. (One can receive up to four beans per shopping trip.) The customer deposits the beans into the jar of the non-profit he/she chooses. The outreach managers coordinate tabling at the store for community education. They offer classes at the library on herbs, medicinal herbs, starting gardens, etc. Three times a year the board invites members for a special education class in specific areas such as open spaces streams to prevent development, or biodiesel biofarming. This promotes member interaction with the board about global issues not just cooperative ends.
The Annual Membership Meeting is held at a brew pub with appetizers, desserts, and drink tickets. There are speeches by the board president and General Manager, a silent auction, entertainment of demonstrations and info tables. There are awards given to local vendors nominated by staff buyers. The buyers present the award to the vendors and are in charge of writing a speech to highlight the vendor’s sustainability practices. They always have entertainment—last year they had a capoeira demonstration.
As far as expansion goes Food Front is pretty much landlocked; the site can’t get any bigger. In 2002 they expanded the current site and initially lost money. (Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are close by and Groger’s remodeled their store). They started carrying wine and beer and gradually their membership began to grow. Membership growth is steady but the new urban lifestyle doesn’t seem to understand membership equity vs. a loyalty card.
Touring the store, they are the most proud of their produce department. Much like we do, they boast their produce department features local produce when in season. In the summertime, 90 percent of their organic produce comes direct from the growers. In addition to local growers, the store clearly labels local vendors throughout the store. The wine department has had the best sales growth primarily because of the affluent clientele. Included in that department are some of the finest/most expensive wines along with fine cheeses, jellies, jams, and an upscale meat market. The deli kitchen is literally in the corner of the deli; you can reach out and touch them. (And I thought our deli was cramped.) They produce about 15 cold options, two hot soups, and a hot case that has two entrees and two side dishes. They have a lot of local soaps and supplements in their Health and Wellness aisle.
Unique and interesting items
Bulk toys at 39¢ apiece (there isn’t a play area so the toys keep the kids out of the bins); anasazi beans, moong dal, and chana dal; dried organic Himalayan mulberries; dried local organic blueberries and cranberries; bulk seaweed vegetables (nori sheets, nori strips, kombu, and dulse); wasabi lima beans; lemon roasted almonds; local organic walnuts; local sustainable frozen corn, peas, spinach, blueberries and strawberries; Ruby Jewel Ice cream sandwiches; Just Coffee of Madison “Grounds for Democracy” blend ($4 of every pound sold goes to Democracy Now news media).
While it’s fun to get away and learn new things about cooperatives, it is great to come home to the wonderful co-op that is Willy Street Co-op. At both Oregon co-ops they acknowledged our store saying many kind things. It is an honor to be able to represent the Co-op as both a staff and Board member. We are a jewel for the natural foods industry; I look forward to our continued success and growth in the future.