General Manager's Corner: The Company the Co-op Keeps

Jon Roesser, Weavers Way General Manager

When I was a kid. my father, in a vain attempt to get me to hang out with a better crowd, wagged his finger at me and said something like, “You know, the people you’re friends with define who you are.”

It turns out Aesop said, “A man is known by the company he keeps” long before my father came along, but back in the 1980s I wasn’t taking advice from anyone over 30, alive or dead. 

I now realize Aesop and my old man were onto something, and their advice has been on my mind as I’ve been considering the various partnerships and affiliations the Co-op maintains. 

As owners of Weavers Way, you too should be aware of the company the Co-op has been keeping. So here’s a quick tutorial. (Be warned: Co-op World is an alphabet soup of organizations on a scale that rivals the New Deal.) 

Of particular importance to Weavers Way is our membership in the National Cooperative Grocers. The NCG is a “co-op of co-ops,” owned by something like 150 co-ops around the country, ranging from tiny operations with a handful of employees to multi-store chains employing thousands. Weavers Way is one of the bigger co-ops in the association. 

I have mixed feelings about the NCG. They offer fee-for-service consultants, experts in things like meat, produce and deli, and these folks are generally pretty great and the fees they charge are bargain-basement low. But in these months following our expansion to Ambler, the NCG’s been largely absent despite some requests for assistance, particularly in areas related to cash management.

The NCG’s raison d’être is the supply agreement it negotiates with UNFI, the big natural foods wholesaler that supplies most natural grocers around the country, including Whole Foods. Through our NCG membership, Weavers Way gets preferred pricing that we simply couldn’t get on our own. For the UNFI supply contract alone, membership in the NCG makes good business sense. 

Another “co-op of co-ops” is the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance. Weavers Way is a founding member of PACA, which is made up of all kinds of cooperatively-owned organizations in and around the city — not just food co-ops, but credit unions, home-health co-ops, housing and energy co-ops and worker co-ops. 

PACA is a scrappy, perennially underfunded advocacy group that does good work in combating racial and economic inequality. I wish they’d spend more time working towards turning Philadelphia into the American version of Mondragon, Spain, or Emilia-Romagna, Italy, where large percentages of the economy are cooperatively-controlled.

Covering a bigger geographical area than PACA but concentrating on just food co-ops is the Mid Atlantic Food Cooperative Alliance. MAFCA is a loose federation of existing co-ops and start-ups from New York to Virginia. Thanks to MAFCA, co-ops that would otherwise rarely talk to each other have regular opportunities to come together to discuss common challenges. 

Finally, there’s the Delaware Valley Co-op Association. DVCA is made up of the four local grocery co-ops: Creekside in Elkins Park, Mariposa in West Philadelphia, Swarthmore and Weavers Way. It also includes three start-ups: Kensington Community Food Co-op, South Philly Food Co-op and the West Chester Cooperative Association. (Newark Natural Foods in Newark, DE, might belong to the DVCA too, but it’s been a long time since they came to any of the meetings.)

All the members of the DVCA are members of PACA too, and PACA helps DVCA with communications and meetings. 

We have other affiliations too. There’s PFMA, the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, which provides much-needed advocacy for small, independent grocers who are increasingly besieged by the big chains. But we’re we’re sour on them since they joined the misinformation campaign against the sweetened-beverage tax.

We’re members of FMI, the Food Marketing Institute. We belong to the SBN (Sustainable Business Network). The CHBA (Chestnut Hill Business Association). AMS (Ambler Main Street). PASA (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture).

I could go on, but you get the idea. 

I suppose we could do without all these relationships. We’d save plenty of money on dues and I’d have to attend a lot fewer meetings. And in my opinion, not all of these organizations have their priorities right.

Hey, “Weavers Way First” could be our new mantra! 

But isolationism doesn’t strike me as a sensible policy these days. The grocery world is transforming. Keeping up with industry trends, learning from, and leaning on, others who share your interests and values makes sense. 

And it’s good to know that Weavers Way is part of a much bigger movement to improve health, care for the planet and strengthen local economic systems. 

It’s all about the company we keep. 

See you around the Co-op.