The Cooperative Cafe provides a day of highly interactive and engaging strategic conversations designed to build shared understanding at your co-op and among co-ops. This past year Cafe conversations have focused on addressing business sustainability, participation, and building community in our co-ops as essential elements to thriving in the “new normal” of intense competition. All over the country, food co-op board members, staff, managers, and owners are having conversations about their roles in meeting goals in both margin and mission.
The Co-op Cafes are sponsored by the National Co+op Grocers (NCG) and produced by the CDS Consulting Co-op as a series of regional events that make it possible for many people with various roles in a co-op to participate in a day of strategic conversation with people in similar roles at other co-ops in the region.
The Cafes are currently in their third year, and anyone can join a Cafe anytime and anywhere—that’s its purpose, to encourage greater participation. Yet over time the co-ops that get the most value from the experience tend to send lots of people (buses and vanloads). “I don’t think there’s any other venue to have conversations like this with all of the co-op’s stakeholders,” said Dave Olson, NCG’s national co-op development manager. “It puts people on the same team and helps everyone do their jobs better.”
Olson thinks that the Cafes also helps facilitate meaningful conversations that happen more than once, by offering many opportunities to learn and be engaged. “The more exposure people have to what’s going on in the sector can also help co-ops strategize from their own point of view with greater information, thought and understanding,” Olson said. It’s a cross-pollination of industry experts and everyone involved in their individual co-op. “It’s a unique opportunity for us to bring important marketplace context so more people can use that to better serve their members,” Olson said.
Participants have also raved about the experience. At the Provender, Oregon Cooperative Cafe, Halle Riddlebarger said, “Cooperation among cooperatives can be one of our strongest assets—take advantage of this strength at the Co-op Cafe!” In Ann Arbor, Mich. Shari Gross commented, “It’s a think tank for food co-ops!” and David Hall said, “We all need to take personal responsibility in creating our future, together. The cooperative mindset and approach is simply one key in this movement.”
The Cooperative Cafe is inspirational as well as motivating. It has led more and more co-ops to also adopt the cafe style at their own meetings to increase participation, because it allows people to hear from a wide variety of perspectives in a meaningful way. It’s a great experience, and the more people take part, the cafes will continue to expand and involve more people in the conversation.