Just Food, a new food co-op in Northfield, Minn., opened to wide acclaim and much anticipation in the fall of 2004. It is still building on the momentum its opening has generated, and the community and members are as enthusiastic about the co-op as they were on opening day. Customers even now thank and congratulate the staff and general manager in the aisles for all their hard work opening the co-op.
That is always good news and a welcome relief for a startup. This month they are also opening the Northfield Mercantile, a natural home products store, adjacent to the food co-op’s space. This is a brand new co-op on a big roll, and it seems, so far, everything it touches turns to gold. Everything seems to be falling into place so that the co-op can manifest the kind of opportunities that allow it to really contribute to its community right out of the gate.
The story of Just Food’s development is a case study of what can go right when all the elements are in place: solid community commitment to the co-op, strong board leadership, and an excellent staff and general manager. It also signals a new wave ofCDS food co-op development approaches, one based on the effective collaboration of all constituencies.
Stuart Reid, Just Food’s general manager, successfully managed a profitable Seward Co-op Grocery and Deli in Minneapolis before taking on the challenge of a startup. He noted that there are big differences today in new food co-op development, methods that helped Just Foods get launched. “We’re starting co-ops now with information, market studies, info from other successful co-ops, and consultants.” He said that in the past people wanting a food co-op “would find a church basement and start it tomorrow.” Expectations were also low. “In today’s market you can’t do that,” Reid said.
Reid also said that while you have to have a good market potential to realistically survive, you also need to have a strong and committed core of community organizers willing to see it through. He credits those individuals with ultimately realizing Just Food. “Just Food had people with specific skills, energy and time that evolved into the founding team that carried the co-op into opening.” That group of people was helped during the organizational process by CDS expansion consultant Bill Gessner. “He was the guiding force keeping things on track,” Reid said.
With Gessner and CDS’ assistance, the co-op got a USDAdevelopment grant and was introduced to a range of CDSconsultants. They helped the co-op through the entire startup process with a market study that encouraged the community, led board and staff trainings, and even created merchandising sets of the products on the shelf. “We dug deep into CDS resources. They got us off the ground fast. I feel strongly about how much they’ve contributed to the co-op community. They’re a tremendous resource,” Reid said. “They put it together in a way that makes it accessible.”
Reid noted that Just Food’s development wasn’t formally part of the newly established Co-op 500 Program, but he sees his co-op’s development with CDS assistance as a precursor given the kind of resources, systems and advice the co-op received. “It’s a really strong approach that should help open more stores faster. It’s realistic,” Reid said about combining the grassroots with professional expertise to generate efficient and successful new co-op development. “Our support network is strengthening. It bodes well for our future.”