Suggestion Box: More Thoughts on Creekside and Other Co-op Closures

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.

This past December saw the closing of Creekside Co-op in Elkins Park. Creekside is not alone; 2018 also saw the closing of Harvest Co-op in Boston and Company Shops Co-op in Burlington, NC. A few other co-ops closed last year as well. 

Too bad there aren’t autopsies for co-ops that die; it might help others live longer. Philadelphia is expecting to see two co-ops open stores in 2019. Construction is in process for Kensington Food Co-op at Lehigh and Coral streets, and South Philly Co-op at 2031 Juniper St. Both have been around as organizations a few years, and now they’ll have a physical presence. Both are different than Creekside in that they are located in urban areas, and are physically about half the size of Creekside. Kensington’s building came with a restaurant alcohol license, so their design includes a cafe that can sell and serve beer. South Philly Co-op is opening in a densely populated area with lots of retail, including Sprouts Farmers Market just over a mile away.

As the role co-ops play in their surrounding communities seems to vary with the specific locations and facilities, one thing most co-ops have in common (including Weavers Way, Creekside, Kensington and South Philly) is that they were started by a small group of community activists volunteering their time to improve their community. This was true of our Ambler store too, which started as Ambler Food Co-op. I suspect this is true of most co-ops; certainly it was true of our namesake, a group of weavers that named themselves “The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers.” In 1844, harsh living conditions and inadequate consumer protection (the adulteration of food was widespread) inspired a small group of activists to adopt a new cooperative way for purchasing food and other goods. They also included social and educational facilities for ordinary working people. Once a co-op is formed, activism continues in the form of people volunteering to serve on co-op boards and committees.

As I recall, Creekside’s founders were a highly motivated group. They wanted to restore the small commercial strip of stores that had served the surrounding community for decades, but had declined after the closing of Ashbourne Market. Despite the founders’ good intentions, hard work, supportive initial community engagement and the efforts of some committed staff, Creekside appears to have made more poor decisions than good decisions, to the point that the co-op did not become a sustainable business. 

The same is likely true for most co-ops that don’t survive. These days, modern food co-ops’ primary reason to exist — the lack of availability of whole, natural, local, ethically produced food — is no longer a small niche appealing mainly to a small group of people that value these foods. To some extent, these values have spread to a much larger audience, resulting in the fast growth of the “natural products industry,” replete with large chains like Whole Foods, niche retailers like Trader Joe’s, and large food manufacturers like Nestlé and General Mills acquiring smaller brands that had some success in the industry. 

In an effort to stay relevant, many modern co-ops (including Weavers Way) have adopted standard retail food industry techniques such as managing their price image and providing “good-better-best” product choices so as not to seem too pricey (e.g., Hellman’s Mayo as a “good” product with a conventional price, in addition to a mass market natural/organic brand like Spectrum as the “better” product with a higher price, and a locally made organic version in a glass jar as “best” at the premium price artisanal, small-batch products require).

Whether these strategies will help co-ops survive remains to be seen, as does the question of how far co-ops should go in translating their values into actions. For instance, is managing price image contrary to being transparent and educating shoppers about the true cost of products?

suggestions and responses:

s: “Nature’s Yoke large eggs look like they are actually medium eggs.”

r: (Matt, MA) The USDA standard minimum weight for a “large” egg is two ounces. Not wanting to doubt our shopper’s assessment, I decided to check what Nature’s Yoke had sent us against the national labeling standards. I checked a handful of Nature’s Yoke dozens from different cases and came to an average egg size of 2.2 oz, well over the USDA standard for “large” (in fact, it’s approaching the USDA minimum for extra large, which is 2.25). The fact that Nature’s Yoke chickens are free range and are given forage opportunities leads to a richer yolk and a more dense egg than conventional eggs. As the USDA rates eggs by weight, it may result in what appears to be a smaller egg. 

s: “Can we get nigella seed?”

r: (Norman) We can if we have enough requests. You can also order a one-pound bag; ask a Bulk staffer. Nigella seed is also known as black caraway, and is used in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. If shoppers start to use it, it may also become an ingredient in Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill and Ambler cuisines. Traditionally, cuisines develop regionally to a geographic area due to familial and cultural traditions, what foods can be grown there, and lack of access to services such as Grubhub and DoorDash.

s: “Bob’s Red Mill potato flakes?” 

r: (Norman) We stock them in our Chestnut Hill and Ambler locations. There are also plenty of other flakes at all our stores; take a look at the person standing next to you in the checkout line.

s: “Can we get reusable K-cups for making coffee?”

r: (Norman) We do have a supplier that stocks the Ekobrew brand, so we will try ordering some for all three stores.

s: “Sunflower oil is good for frying. Does not smoke as much as other oils.”

r: (Norman) We stock bottled sunflower oil in Chestnut Hill and Ambler, but not in Mt. Airy (it was discontinued due to slow sales). Smoke point is one of many considerations when choosing a cooking oil. Others include: type of extraction (solvent-extracted being a bad choice due to effect of solvents on environment and workers); omega-3/omega-6 balance (sunflower oil is very high in omega-6); and saturation (poly-unsaturated, mono-
unsaturated, saturated). Sunflower is mostly polyunsaturated. We know from our recent research into canola oil that opinions about healthfulness of oils are all over the map, even among nutritional scientists and researchers.

s: “The best-tasting nut-free, soy-free, gluten-free, lactose-free, vegan yogurt I have ever tasted is made by Ripple Foods. I realize it’s not local, and I have only seen it in Colorado. But if it’s possible to get it, I would purchase it! Any flavor, thank you.”

r: (Matt MA) I’m familiar with Ripple as an alt-milk company, but have not seen yogurt from them. I looked at their website and don’t see yogurt listed under their products. It’s possible Ripple ceased production, but I’ll look into it further.

s: “Noreen’s makes great oatmeal cranberry cookies, which never seem to be stocked anymore, while there are always overflowing piles of their (so-so, in my opinion) chocolate-chip cookies. Not sure what the supply-demand situation is here, but could we have the oatmeal cranberry back?”

r: (Jenna, MA) We receive Noreen’s every Tuesday and get chocolate chunk oatmeal, chocolate chip and Russian tea cookies. I have since brought back her oatmeal cranberry cookies. Please ask a staffer to help you look for a specific flavor next time. 

(Norman) The Russian tea cookies may not be available much longer, as they are under investigation due to the cookies’ disconnect with the stereotypes of tea drinkers. They’re typically thought of as being dainty English royalty types, while the Russian stereotype is of vodka-drinking, chain-smoking, gruff and corrupt types. Since this is incompatible with the tea stereotype, Russian tea cookies are suspected of disguising their true intent. Hence the need for an investigation.