Weavers Way Chooses Site in Ambler for Third Co-op Store
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
PHILADELPHIA, PA, Nov. 1, 2016 — Weavers Way Co-op announced today that it plans to expand to Ambler, PA, opening the Mt. Airy-based cooperative's third grocery store and its first outside Northwest Philadelphia.
Weavers Way Ambler is expected to open its doors in April 2017 at 217 E. Butler Ave. (map), site of a former Bottom Dollar store.
"We're excited about the prospect of bringing the Weavers Way combination of good, sustainable food, fair wages and community engagement to Ambler," said Weavers Way General Manager Jon Roesser. "It gives us an opportunity to meaningfully grow the cooperative economy in our region. All of us — members, employees, vendors and our neighbors — stand to benefit from this."
Weavers Way, which has its roots in a neighborhood buying club established in 1973 in West Mt. Airy, opened its second location in Chestnut Hill in 2010. The Co-op's Board of Directors had been considering additional expansion opportunities for several years, and started focusing in earnest on the Montgomery County borough in 2015 in close collaboration with the Ambler Food Co-op, a four-year-old organization without a brick-and-mortar store.
“We are thrilled that we have partnered with Weavers Way to reach our goal of opening a full-service grocery store that is connected to our community,” said Ambler Food Co-op Board President Kathleen Casey.
In numerous presentations over the last year, as well as in articles in the Co-op's newspaper, the Shuttle, GM Roesser and members of the Weavers Way Board have argued that the increasing competition in the natural-foods marketplace makes expansion crucial to Weavers Way's continuing prosperity. "People with money have figured out that they can make money in our sector,” said Roesser, with specialty stores like Mom's Organic and Sprouts opening new locations in the Philadelphia area, and supermarket chains including Giant and even big-box stores like Target and Walmart trying to claim a piece of the organic and sustainable pie. "Growth is one important way of protecting ourselves, by making sure the good guys keep a share," Roesser said.
The Ambler site is one of 66 former Bottom Dollar locations purchased by the German discount grocery chain Aldi in November 2014, and one of more than two dozen that that Aldi kept shuttered rather than converting into Aldi stores. When it closed, the Ambler Bottom Dollar had been open a little more than a year. Weavers Way would lease the property from Aldi for an initial term of 15 years.
On Sept. 20, Ambler Borough Council unanimously approved Weavers Way's application to operate a store in the borough. The application had previously gained the support of the Ambler and Montgomery County planning commissions.
Co-op Board President Chris Hill explained the Weavers Way-Ambler affinity: "As at our current stores, the Ambler location is easily accessible on foot and by bike. It is part of a dense, walkable commercial strip, close to other businesses, the commuter train station and the Ambler Theater."
A former company town afflicted by the economic woes that upended many "Industrial Valley" communities in the 20th century, Ambler has turned things around in the last decade. "Ambler residents have worked hard to develop their 'Main Street,' and now restaurants and small shops thrive along Butler Avenue," Hill said.
The new store will have approximately 10,000 square feet of retail space — a bit more than the combined square footage of the Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill stores — with a loading dock, capacious back-stock areas and an 85-space parking lot. A reasonable walk from the Ambler train station, it is also a half block from SEPTA's Route 94 bus, which runs from Chestnut Hill to the Montgomery Mall, and a half mile from the intersection of Butler Avenue and Bethlehem Pike. It's about 6 miles as the crow flies from Weavers Way Chestnut Hill.
Dakota Worldwide, market analysts with extensive experience in the natural-food sector, surveyed the competitive scene for a proposed Ambler Weavers Way across a wide geographical swath, covering two dozen grocery stores, including the not-yet-open Whole Foods in nearby Spring House and the Chestnut Hill Weavers Way store itself. The results suggest that an Ambler Weavers Way could generate $8 million in annual sales after its first year. Last year, Chestnut Hill sales totaled around $11 million and Mt. Airy $10 million, in 3,700 square feet and 3,200 square feet respectively. Weavers Way expects to add 45 employees to the current full- and part-time staff of about 175 to support the Ambler operation.
The Ambler opportunity came to the attention of the Co-op in no small part because of the energetic efforts of the Ambler Food Co-op, a group of true believers who held their first meeting in 2012, adopted bylaws the following year and began signing up equity-paying members in February 2014. These members, now numbering nearly 400, voted overwhelmingly at their Oct. 9 meeting to support becoming part of Weavers Way.
“Ambler‘s charm is in its walkability, its Main Street ‘feel,’" noted AFC Board President Casey. "But those charming elements don’t suit grocers who seek at least 40,000 square feet, and so it has been passed on by corporate grocers, leaving residents, many of whom don’t drive, without access to healthy food. The appeal of a co-op is that it is adaptable because it is developed and supported by the community.”
The Ambler store will be owned and operated by Weavers Way Co-op; it is anticipated that Ambler Food Coop members will transfer their memberships to Weavers Way. Membership is not a requirement for shopping at Weavers Way stores, although members enjoy a number of discounts and services not available to non-members, and can participate in Co-op governance.
Weavers Way plans to finance the Ambler expansion with a combination of commercial and member loans. In opening the Chestnut Hill store, the Co-op raised nearly $700,000 in member loans in 2009 and 2010. This year's member loan campaign kicked off in October.
The Co-op can also tap into member equity: Weavers Way members are asked to deposit up to a total of $400 (and can add more) in equity accounts, which represent each household's ownership share in the Co-op. A recent campaign to increase equity contributions, "Together We Grow," raised an additional $45,000 in equity cash on hand.
In addition, efforts are under way to access economic development funding from the state, Montgomery County and Ambler borough. Despite being surrounded by some of the Philadelphia area's wealthiest suburbs, Ambler itself has income and food-access issues, with no grocery store in the borough since the Acme moved out in 2009 and Bottom Dollar closed in 2014, and a relatively high proportion — at least 30 percent, according to federal Community Development Block Grant program filings — of elderly and low-income residents who have limited transportation options.
Hill, the Weavers Way Board president, emphasized that expansion is not merely a prudent business move or a matter of protecting Weavers Way's flank. “We believe that growing the cooperative economy is a good thing," he said. "Expanding the cooperative model matters. It is critical to ensuring a more equitable, just and caring local economy. We sincerely believe this opportunity to grow Weavers Way is in the best interest of all of us."
About Weavers Way: Based in Northwest Philadelphia and cooperatively owned by its more than 6,000 member households, "the Co-op" has two grocery stores, two wellness specialty stores, a pet-supply store and a 5-acre urban farm. From its start in 1973 as a neighborhood food-buying club, Weavers Way has grown into a $21 million-a-year full-service grocery business that focuses on products that are sustainable, healthful, local and affordable. Visit www.weaversway.coop for more information.