What’s Happening Behind the Scenes at Willy Street Co-op
Chances are if you shop at the Co-op with any regularity you have come to recognize the faces of many of the staff members on the floor—you may have an idea of which people stock Packaged Grocery or who works in Produce; surely the guys bundled for freezing temperatures can answer questions about frozen food and the people in hairnets and latex gloves will dish out food from behind the Deli counter or Juice Bar. Almost anyone who shops with any frequency can point out our cashiers, and probably has a favorite! If you use our Co-Shop service, you will be familiar with the delivery staff and our blue van.
Many of these folks are already working hard at 5:00am unloading trucks, or heading home after 10:00pm having swept up, counted up and locked up—they deserve kudos for the job they do each day. These staff members are an invaluable part of our business; in fact, we literally would not function without a well-trained staff on the sales floor, but what you see on the floor is really just the tip of the iceberg. Behind those swinging doors near the dairy department is a hive of activity, and it is all centered on making your Co-op the best—better stocked, more efficient, more convenient, and ever more fiscally sound, which helps keep prices reasonable, allows us to pay a living wage to staff and paves the way for future improvements and expansion.
Behind the Juice Bar and Produce department is the Receiving area. Trucks of all sizes back up to our loading dock throughout the morning hours each day. According to Jeff Bessmer, our Receiver, 15 to 25 trucks—depending on the day of the week—come in before 2:00pm; often more than one truck at a time is parked at the dock, or waiting for a slot. Once the shipments are unloaded, they are checked for completeness and quality; prices are updated if necessary and new items are entered into our computer database. If the merchandise will not all fit on the sales floor, it is stored in a specific spot in the back room for a day or two. Boxes are flattened and baled for recycling and reusable packaging is set aside to return to vendors. Invoices are always checked to be sure that we’ve received the same things we ordered and are charged for; at the same time a member of the Flow of Goods (FoG) team watches for price changes. The auditors on the FoG team regularly check shelf tags to be sure that the prices shown on the shelf agree with those in the computer and register system. Not only does this prevent unpleasant confusion at the register, it is an efficient way to make sure we are in compliance with state regulations.
Information Services Coordinator James Phetteplace heads up the FoG team and our IT staff. The FoGers work with data that is directly related to merchandise—in addition to making sure that products are correctly entered into the computer system and ringing up properly, they work to ensure the integrity of data so that product buyers and managers can make good decisions when ordering and stocking.
The IT team supports every department at the Co-op as we continue to move away from paper-based systems to more efficient and greener digital documentation and communication. The “Geeks” are constantly striving to keep our data—and yours—safe and secure. They keep our hardware in good repair and our phone and Internet networks humming along. Though many of us count on our entire crack IT team to bail us out of technical jams, it is often Alvin Hishinuma we call first. Alvin’s knowledge seems encyclopedic and his grace and patience when answering even the simplest questions is legendary among Co-op staff.
Once the Receiving and FoG crews have finished with an invoice, it is sent to our Finance department for payment. In addition to paying the bills we incur, the Finance team creates our annual budget and makes sure we live within its parameters. They keep track of payroll and work with outside auditors to reconcile the books each year. Director of Finance David Waisman works with General Manager Anya Firszt to create the budget, consulting with various managers on specific items. The Board of Directors starts this process by setting out expectations for the year, and they also must approve the final version that David and Anya draft for the Finance Committee before it is implemented.
Gene Hahn is currently serving as Assistant Manager of the Finance department; he has been a member of that team since July 1991. Gene told me, “Our cooperative needs to make a profit every year. With a profit we can then discuss how to allocate those profits to better serve our membership. The process used to remain profitable in a cooperative setting has provided me with the most satisfaction with my bean counter role.”
Dean Kallas has been a familiar face at the Co-op for several years, first as Grocery Manager and now as Merchandising Manager. In his current role Dean determines which new items or brands make it onto our shelves. Co-op Owners are not shy about making requests for new products and when they do, Dean starts investigating. If we are talking about a national brand item, the first step is to find out whether a product is available from our main distributor; by limiting the number of distributors we buy from, we save money on several fronts: freight charges, book keeping costs, number of deliveries to be stocked out each week, data entry needed to process our inventory for the checkout registers, even the amount of signage we need to print. Once Dean has located an item, he checks the pricing to determine if the cost is in line with, or a better deal than something we already carry. He must consider which products might be displaced by a new choice and how that would impact all our customers. Before making a decision, Dean will usually obtain samples of the product and request feedback from other staff members who try them. An important consideration is whether a vendor is local—we try to support as many local producers as possible, so decisions often tend to be weighted a bit in their favor, all other things being equal. Once a new product hits the shelf, customer response takes over; if an item doesn’t sell well, it is hard to justify space for it. We appreciate your understanding when we can’t add a particular product—some items are simply not available to us; some are products filled with artificial preservatives or other additives that don’t meet our criteria for wholesome, sustainable, natural foods; others might displace a lower-priced item that many residents of our neighborhood depend on or simply be inappropriate to our mix for other reasons.
Another important aspect of Dean’s job is determining the items that will be “on sale” each month. That process is more involved than you might think. Our vendors first select a wide range of items that they are willing to offer at discounted wholesale prices. Dean must review these items and sort out those that we don’t carry; he then considers how popular a product is, and whether it has recently been a sale item. He looks for products that are seasonally appropriate and thinks about upcoming holidays and celebrations. Dean also tries to choose specials that allow us to offer great prices on monthly Essentials and Owner Rewards. We work in partnership with other co-ops across the country—almost like a chain of stores—to build our volume buying capabilities through the Co-op Advantage Program; this leverage can encourage manufacturers and distributors to offer better deals on their products.
The Human Resources (HR) team works behind the scenes almost exclusively, but they are important to the health and happiness of every Co-op employee. HR posts job vacancies, interviews and recommends applicants, keeps the Co-op in compliance with safety and labor laws, and makes sure that each employee receives their correct pay and benefits. The HR team provides various training classes for staff and helps to resolve all kinds of work-related questions and problems. According to Kerrie Lentz, HR Assistant Manager, we receive about 365 applications for employment each year. We hired approximately 41 new employees in 2008, but HR usually interviews at least three people for every one hired. Human Resources also enhances employee contentment by providing opportunities for each of us to evaluate our peers and managers, creating new ways for us to give—and get—feedback from each other and throwing an occasional party for employees. All of these things help create a satisfying workplace and that makes for less staff turnover and reduces hiring and training costs.
The Maintenance team is everywhere—in the back room, the basement and at our off-site offices and Production Kitchen; they are on the sales floor, in the parking lot and the rain garden. Coordinator Jim Jirous and his coworkers spend huge amounts of time and effort cleaning the building inside and out; they repair coolers and dishwashers that are on the fritz; keep us cool in summer and warm in winter; mow the grass, pick up litter, and shovel snow. They take on painting and carpentry projects, move office furniture and mop up after customers and employees alike. Jim makes sure the water filtration system is functioning properly, the van’s tires are inflated, and that we have the office and cleaning supplies we need.
Josh Perkins and his staff at the off-site Production Kitchen (affectionately called the OSK by staff) are behind the scenes players that impact a huge number of people—they are responsible for keeping many customers and staff members well fed and healthy every day. This team creates most of the goodies found in the Deli and in the Juice Bar bakery cases; they cook up all the ready-to-eat holiday meals that our Owners order; and they prepare catering orders almost daily, along with making delicious samplings for events like the Food and Wine Show and The Big Eat, (where the Co-op won the “Best Entrée” award last spring) as well as other neighborhood and community events. One kitchen staffer defines it this way: “The OSK: We get more done before 9:00am than most people do all day.”
All of this takes place in a bustling kitchen that incorporates strict food safety protocols at all times. According to Josh Perkins, Production Kitchen Manager, some of these safety measures include, “...use of the blast chiller, a huge and expensive piece of equipment that chills food super-quick to stay within pathogen-discouraging timeframes; constant and fastidious use of gloves on food both ready-to-eat and in preparation; incredibly tight controls on incoming products [for] temperature, packaging, appearance.”
As you can imagine, the tools at the Production Kitchen are a little bigger than those you might use at home. When I asked Josh about the staff’s favorite piece of timesaving equipment, he speculated it was “a neck-and-neck competition between the Hobart food processor (slices/dices/chips/grates) and the burr mixer (huge immersion blender, purees 20 gallons at a crack) with the food processor winning by virtue of our product catalog.” And the top selling catering item? Lasagna, hands down!
Much of the food from the Production Kitchen is destined to be sold through our Deli or Juice Bar. Prepared Foods Manager Dan Moore and his staff are also well trained in food safety procedures and rival the Kitchen staff in their use of gloves. Dan told me that gloves are packed 1000 to a box and his staff uses up several boxes every week when serving customers, making sushi, sandwiches and juices or cutting and wrapping cheese.
The Co-op management team has a variety of duties both on and off the sales floor. Each of the managers spends time scheduling staff, writing performance reviews, and working on department budgets. Most of them take time each week to monitor listservs focused on issues that affect cooperatives across the country—the challenges we run into have often been previously tackled by another co-op and their solutions may help us out of an occasional tight spot in the same way we would hope to aid another store.
Some management tasks aid other businesses in the community. Cooperative Services Manager Lynn Olson and Director of Communications Brendon Smith are responsible for donations to area non-profit groups. Each month they disburse about $500 in gift cards, deli platters and other refreshments to a variety of non-profit organizations.
Lynn Olson and her assistant Liz Hawley schedule a range of activities in our Community Room for the pleasure and education of Co-op Owners, staff and the general public. Liz is also the first point of contact for Customer Comment forms—she routes them to the proper department and then makes sure they are posted or printed in the newsletter. Liz manages the Eastside Farmers’ Market as well, reviewing applications from farmers, determining the layout of booths in the lot and organizing all the music, food and special events that make the Eastside Farmers’ Market a fun destination.
The Communications Department has a hand in most of the contact that happens between Willy Street Co-op and its Owners, from signs and some displays, to the newsletter, the member survey, the annual report, brochures, the website, focus groups, Co-op advertising you see in other publications and mailings you receive from us. This department organizes events like the Annual Membership Meeting and Owner Appreciation Week and is responsible for events we participate in including neighborhood fairs, the Food and Wine Show and Food for Thought Festival; t-shirts and other merchandise bearing the Willy Street Co-op logo are also the responsibility of Communications. Our Art Coordinator Amber McGee designs the “look” of the Co-op, from letterhead and business cards, to the monthly display endcap and decorating at the registers and around the store, to special artwork needed for various promotions and advertising.
General Manager Anya Firszt spends much of her time learning from other co-ops and sharing her—and our—experience with them. Anya attends a variety of meetings each week ranging from regular Board meetings, to Board committees; she holds weekly gatherings of the GM team managers and sits on the Employee Council; she meets with other neighborhood leaders to facilitate partnerships that lead to a variety of events and services.
The Board of Directors also shares—and gains—knowledge with other co-ops. Board members do a great deal of research before making decisions that affect policies, finances and expansion and at times consult with outside professionals to make the best-informed decisions possible. They invite Co-op Owners to attend their meetings for a peek at some behind the scenes action.
Your favorite cashier probably didn’t walk in the door with his or her skills completely polished. New cashiers spend their first few days in exhaustive training, including practice transactions; after six weeks they are treated to advanced troubleshooting training and learn how to help out at the Customer Service desk.
A myriad of other tasks are performed by all members of the staff—buyers and department managers research new vendors and products; many people write articles for the newsletter requiring time spent reading and researching to ensure we are giving you accurate information; all staff members attend regular department meetings and special trainings intended to increase our knowledge and improve our service to Co-op Owners. Every day brings something different for many of us and we relish that kind of challenge!