Elm City Market in New Haven, Conn., shares a lot in common with many places that have a food co-op, including proximity to colleges with an educated populace. In some ways the similarity ends there. The co-op formed because no other grocer wanted to be a part of a downtown development that the community had expected all along would include a grocery store.
An exhausting search trying to entice a chain grocer into the market went bust. “Nobody was interested because the retail space was too small for conventional markets and the economic downturn made others reluctant,” said Mark Regni, Elm City Market’s general manager. “This prompted the developer to look into other options, and that included successful community-owned markets in New England.” What he saw were very vital businesses, and he was especially encouraged by the River Valley Market, a startup in Northampton, Mass., that’s garnered widespread support, and the City Market in Burlington, Vt. that does a booming business as a full-service grocer in its downtown area.
Once people in New Haven saw the potential for having the same kind of operation, there has been no stopping them. Their story is a fine example of how cooperation is a great solution to meeting community needs, especially as a viable alternative to big box retailing.
In order for New Haven to seize the opportunity to have a local grocery store in their 360 State Street Building, the community had to work fast. Not that anyone’s keeping score, but their opening may be the fastest on record yet for a startup. Incorporation to opening took 18 months. After a Town Hall meeting in October 2010, 200 people signed up to join the co-op. “It grew from there,” Regni said. The co-op group did a lot of grassroots campaigning for a solid year, using every available opportunity to speak to individuals and groups at farmers markets, chamber of commerce meetings, and community events. When the co-op opened, it had 750 members. The co-op project ended up costing $7 million, $4 million as a loan from a local bank, and the rest raised through new member equity, member loans and some other investors.
Fortunately for the co-op, they were able to attract Regni, who has experience in the grocery industry opening new retails. “But it’s my first co-op,” he said. “You have to do everything from the ground up. It’s unbelievably challenging.” Now that it’s finally open he’s thrilled with the results and community response. “I’ve never looked back. It’s always been really positive from the get-go, and we’ve had interest from some very big advocates.” One of them has been U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah from Pennsylvania (see feature article), who was very impressed by the co-op when he visited.
Regni chalks it all up to the benefits of the co-op business model. “A lot of people see problems with banks and the economy, and people are really into the idea of a local and community-supported business,” he said. “This is a great year for the International Year of Cooperatives. This is the time of the co-op, to show how we can be strong and keep dollars in our local economy.”