Suggestion Book: What's a Co-op to Do?

Norman Weiss, Weavers Way Purchasing Manager

Greetings and thanks for writing. As usual, suggestions and responses may have been edited for brevity, clarity and/or comedy. In addition, no idea, concept, issue, remark, phrase, description of event, word or word string should be taken seriously. This also applies to the previous sentence.

Recently I was invited to be a panelist at gathering hosted by Equal Exchange. EE wanted someone with “multi-decade perspectives of consumer food co-ops … to share some of their insights into our changing food system and co-ops’ place in it.” I was happy to do this, since EE is one of my favorite brands. They have a great mission and do great work connecting small farmers with consumers such that all participants’ lives are improved. Plus, I love the idea of being qualified to speak on a topic simply due to the length of time I’ve been associated with Weavers Way. It’s its own form of sustainability. (A few years ago, I calculated it was 34 years, so I decided to stop calculating.)

I talked about how Weavers Way was formed, how it grew and where we and other co-ops are today. Co-ops today are abuzz with discussions on how to compete in the changing retail food landscape, where Costco sells more organic food than anyone and the post-Amazon Whole Foods has decided local foods are important enough to hire a Global Coordinator of Local Brands. (I am not making this up.) Co-ops practically invented organic and local-food retailing, and for a couple of decades had the “segments” to themselves. But now that organic and local have gone big, co-ops find themselves losing market share, as the public has lots of choices in the marketplace, and the larger companies can often offer lower prices and/or more convenience like online shopping, home delivery and meal kits. Even large businesses have some degree of community outreach, and companies like Costco also have a reputation for treating employees well. 

So what’s a co-op to do?

Equal Exchange is also a cooperative, but different from us in that it is a worker-owned co-op rather than a consumer co-op. What WW, EE and most co-ops have in common is that co-op members (owners) control the governance, mainly through voting. Co-op members can vote on leadership (electing board members), bylaws, policies and more, depending on how the co-op is organized. This is the big way co-ops differ from other investor-owned companies, and while it isn’t necessarily directly translated tino the shopping experience, it represents economic democracy that is an alternative to the market-based system outside of co-ops. 

In fact, at the Equal Exchange meeting, one of the leaders of a chocolate producer co-op said that from his perspective, the “market is a dictator,” since they still have to compete on the open market to sell their product, so some decisions are made for them by the market, cooperative ownership notwithstanding.

suggestions and responses

s: “Love the mushroom fagioli soup in the pots in Mt. Airy.”

r: (Norman) We are blessed to have soup maestro Dan Cohen running our Mt. Airy kitchen. He promises that no matter how popular his soups become, he will never say “No soup for you” if you are out of line or complain about not getting bread.

s: “Kids Cut Dinosaur Pasta has pastas that don’t even look like dinosaurs.”

r: (Norman) Dinosaurs were primitive creatures and their pasta must therefore reflect primitive shapes, otherwise it would be a violation of Paleo Diet™ standards (note “The Paleo Diet” registered trademark). Remember from last month’s column that what people eat is a proprietary matter. To preserve our ability to use food words, we’ve begun the process of trademarking every term related to food, including “saucepan,” “tomato,” and the verb “stir.” It costs about $500 per trademark, so this will be an expensive, long-term process, but Rome wasn’t built in a day™.

s: “Now that Organic Valley has stopped making soy milk, please provide an alternate brand — chilled, half-gallon, sweetened. Happy to pay the city beverage tax.”

r: (Matt) A replacement from Silk should be in by time you read this.

s: “Can we carry Quinn pretzels (classic sea salt) in Mt. Airy? They are delicious and have healthier ingredients than Glutino. The first three ingredients in Quinn are whole-grain sorghum flour, brown rice flour and potato flour. The first three for Glutino are cornstarch, potato starch and white flour. Chestnut Hill carries the Quinn “honey” variety. Thanks.”

r: (Matt) I’ll look into them! Thanks for the suggestion.

s: “That Switch grape soda that’s been on the bottom shelf of the drink cooler in Mt. Airy lately is outstanding. Can’t imagine such an unknown product is so good.”

r: (Matt) We’re glad you’re enjoying it! It can also be found underneath the counter at the first checkout.

s: “Gluten-free Kinnickinnick Graham Animal cookies — what happened to the supply? Still not happy about losing the dedicated GF cookies etc.!”

r: (Matt) We moved the gluten-free items in line with their conventional counterparts in Mt. Airy in response to shopper feedback. We did also clear some items out based on sales history, including this item. Contact me if you want to special-order a case (ext. 140).