From #108, September-October 2003
Quincy Co-op: 25 Years, New HomeB Y L U C I N D A B E R D O N
After more than twenty years at its cramped former site, Quincy Natural Foods Co-op has taken a major step up. In our California mountain town of 7,000, the co-op's building was crumbling beneath us and had only 1,800 total square feet, no parking, and eight-foot ceilings. We had decrepit apartments above us and rotten floors beneath us. The list of problems went on and on.
In August 2002, we had an opportunity to purchase the old Independent Order of Odd Fellows Hall on Main Street. Built in 1950, the 4,200-square-foot windowless building had very little character: dark on the inside and dismal on the outside. One look at it and all I could see was a very big project. The integrity of the wooden structure was excellent, but major remodeling would be required to accommodate our business. Yet the location was outstanding-next door to the Post Office in a rural town-and with the price and terms being right, the board of directors unanimously decided to go for it.
It was an easy purchase. We had cash for a down payment and the owners offered to carry the note. We were relatively unprepared for such a development, so we rented the building for five months while we created our grand plan. Between August and December 2002 plans were drawn up and submitted. Our construction permit was in hand on January 2. The project was bid at $300,000, but I wanted to do it for $200,000, and I wanted to do it in four months rather than the seven months that was projected.
Without the help of an architect, the designing was left to a committee consisting of an artist, three builders, and myself, the co-op manager. Lee Clinton, projects manager from Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, generously came and consulted with us on design. Our local designers, engineers, and contractors also jumped at the opportunity to assist us. Lots of cooks in the kitchen made for interesting conversations!
How were we going to finance this thing? We had never borrowed money before! We didn't owe anybody anything, and our annual sales were around $700,000. Life was simple. Following the leads of other co-ops and consultants, we set off on a member equity drive and member loan drive. Our goal was to borrow $100,000 from our member owners, increase our equity by $20,000, and borrow another $100,000 from a financial institution or private lender.
Little did I know how easy it would be to borrow money from our members. And little did I know how difficult it would be to get a bank to loan us money. Promoting our project as an economic development project in a depressed rural community, we sought loans from our local bank (where we had been doing business for 20 years), SBA, USDA, California Community Development Fund, and the National Cooperative Bank (NCB). We were turned down by all of them. But we wouldn't take no for an answer, and the NCB was just changing its policy on lending. The second go round was successful, and the NCB lent us the funds we needed. Without the NCB, none of this would have happened.
On January 2, our crews began the demolition process. Every usable piece of lumber, door, siding, wainscoting, maple flooring and paneling was set aside for future use. In one week, we gutted the building and began reconstruction.
Now, living in a small community has its drawbacks, but let me tell you, it also has some great rewards. The new store was dubbed "the good Karma project." Not only did we get an overwhelming response from members who work in the trades and volunteered their services, we also had county and state agencies working with us to our benefit.
For instance, our state department of transportation (Cal Trans) is in the middle of a highway makeover, redoing all the sidewalks and pavement running through the middle of our town, and it has been quite disruptive to the businesses in the downtown area. A few bags of chips, beverages, and kind words for the sidewalk crews facilitated redoing our sidewalks during key construction phases rather than when it was originally scheduled, which would have been after our scheduled opening. This impeccable timing involved PG&E, the water company, and the phone company all choreographing their tasks to fall with a three-day period.
We repeated our tactics of using food, beverages and kind words throughout the building project; a little of each went a long way. In addition, everyone was jumping at the opportunity to participate in such a positive addition to our community.
We designed the store with a raised ceiling, open beam entry, showing the beautiful, previously unexposed truss structure. We were also blessed with the existing gorgeous maple flooring. The interior of the building was designed to include a 650 sq. ft. kitchen/bakery (Quincy hasn't had a bakery in several years). The retail space is 2,300 square, leaving 1,250 feet for back room and offices.
We decided to lease the kitchen/bakery area to a couple with years of experience. Jim and Lynn Dow had operated Lotus Bakery in Santa Rosa for twenty years before moving to Quincy for a different life. As luck would have it, we had room for them.
Moving into such a lovely building, it would have been sacrilegious to bring in much of our old beat up equipment. Our generous friends at the Davis Food Co-op, Ocean Beach Peoples Organic Food Co-op, and Chico Natural Foods all had used equipment they needed to get rid of, and we were the perfect candidate. The only new piece of equipment we needed to purchase was a seven-door retail walk-in cooler. Mountain People's Warehouse assisted us in getting the majority of the equipment from San Diego. More volunteers picked up the remainder at the other co-ops. To the surprise of our refrigeration guy, it all has run perfectly.
In early June the finishing touches were taking place. Having reclaimed much of the wood material from the original structure, the recycling fun began. Our counters are built using clear grain Douglas fir which came from the old interior doors, with the drawers made out of the pine wainscoting that surrounded the interior. The new wainscoting is the old exterior cedar siding, the trim around the windows is from the paneling that covered the interior walls, and we have the original beautiful maple flooring gracing our grocery isles.
On the weekend of June 15th, we moved the store. Trailers, trucks, forklifts, backs and grocery carts carried everything two blocks. In two more days and nights we opened our new facility. Opening day received a great response from our members and the community, with our first $10,000 day. Sales since we opened have doubled over last year, and that trend seems to be continuing. We created seven new jobs and increased employee hours.
We budgeted $200,000 to complete the project and spent $199,000. Not bad for a bunch of West Coast mountain hayseeds shooting from the hip. We didn't quite pull it off in four months, but hey. This project was an overwhelming success, praised by our neighboring merchants, agencies, and the folks that live here. As a community effort, we're really proud about contributing to our local downtown economic health and well being. Life isn't as simple around the shop anymore, but this store is certainly a much nicer place to work.
Lucinda Berdon is general manager at Quincy Natural Foods ([email protected]).
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