[Co-authors with Dennis Maclearn for this article were Ben Nauman and Jennifer Masada. Dennis Maclearn was general manager, and Ben Nauman and Jennifer Masada were on staff, at New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City, Iowa.]
Advertising "Now open at a former theatre near you," the doors of New Pioneer Co-op's second location are open, the smell of buttered popcorn long since gone. The conversion from four-plex movie theatre proved to be nothing short of a full-blown theatrical production from start to finish. The new natural foods store features a wine cellar, full-service meat and seafood program, juice and coffee bar, salad bar, two seating areas, an 8-ton stone hearth oven relocated from our former New Pioneer Bakehouse, and a mezzanine for offices and demo/cooking class kitchen.
The project began in June 1999 when New Pioneer's board of directors approved general manager Dennis MacLearn's proposal to renovate the former Coral Four theater building. The site was a shopping center under redevelopment as the downtown for Coralville, a community just adjacent to Iowa City.
We already operated a full-service grocery in downtown Iowa City plus a small retail outlet in Coralville, which also housed our Bakehouse. That outlet, while it provided our members and customers with wonderful hearth-baked breads and specialty foods, held little potential for expansion of products for an under-served base of customers.
While the Coralville community is poised for growth, at the same time our flagship location in downtown Iowa City had been feeling the stresses of a fixed amount of retail space with a rapidly growing sales and membership base. Our sales per retail square foot were exponentially higher than industry benchmarks, averaging nearly $160,000 weekly out of 5,000 retail sq. ft.
Expansion, relocation, and renovation were on the tips of everyone's tongues, and we chose to do all three. We made plans to relocate our Bakehouse into an expanded facility and started to form a project team. Denise Chevalier, of Cooperative Development Services and a former New Pioneer board member and general manager, was cast in the role of project manager. P.J. Hoffman at Blooming Prairie's Retail Services began work on a floor plan and equipment acquisition. A local equipment vendor was selected, along with a local architect experienced in retail design.
A small team was formed to deal with major construction decisions, including the corporate management team, our project manager, the architect, and department managers when appropriate. Through staff surveys and focused department teams, we gathered input from staff regarding all stages of design.
What we originally hoped would be a 9-month process turned into a 16-month saga. The building required major remodeling, and in October 1999 interior demolition began. An unusually warm fall and winter allowed crews to continue working on footings for the foundation. Progress on the interior was delayed due to issues with engineering, material availability, and permits.
By March 2000, the foundation for the addition that would house the Bakehouse and deli kitchen was ready, and structural steel beams to replace load-bearing interior walls arrived. By fall, the basement was finished, the Bakehouse addition enclosed, and the substructure for the concrete floor was laid.
The roof was back in place and the building sealed with doors and windows during November 2000. By late November, the eight-ton hearth oven had been successfully moved by French specialist Gerard Parade. Though the rest of the store was not yet finished, in December we celebrated an oven rekindling and were able to resume baking in the reinstalled oven at the new location.
The turn of the New Year saw a marked increase in activity for operations staff. Store manager Ben Nauman, department managers, and staff worked tirelessly through January and February to prepare store operations.
Opening day finally arrived on Valentine's Day, February 14, 2001. Board President Patrick Hughes, Dennis MacLearn, and Ben Nauman were on hand for a ribbon cutting as the store was revealed for the first time to members and shoppers.
After six weeks of operations, our customers continue to express their delight and appreciation for our Coralville store. The product mix, with some possible minor adjustments to be made in grocery, is right. As anticipated, the Coralville shoppers tend toward a larger average market basket and less frequent shopping trips (heavily favoring the weekends).
The spacious yet intimate layout, aesthetically appealing displays, and the physical beauty of the store's fixtures have been well received by shoppers. Our cooking classes, wine tasting and educational offerings have also been popular.
The store opening process will likely span our entire first year of operation. We continue to learn more about leveraging operationsl efficiencies in our two-site scenario. Multiple sites also creates new challenges to communication within the organization. We are pleased to report low staff turnover, indicating positive staff morale.
Our original store contines to operate smoothly with a veteran staff anchoring the organization in its new, two-site mode. Many thanks again to all who assisted with this grand production. We consider ourselves very fortunate to have had such a talented, knowledgeable, and supportive cast and crew of consultants, project support staff, vendors, brokers, and staff from other area co-ops to work with through our store opening process.
We extend invitations to visit the new New Pioneer Co-op. The cameras roll every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the cast of characters won't be complete without you!
New Pioneer Cooperative: Iowa City and Coralville, Iowa
[Coralville location / Iowa City location]
Size (retail): 10,000 sq. ft. / 5,400 sq. ft.
Size (total): 20,000 sq. ft. / 8,000 sq. ft.
Projected annual sales: $7,500,000 / $6,800,000 (projected)
Customers/day: 975 / 1,262
Average transaction: $17.10 / $14.52
Staff: 93 incl. bakehouse / 87 incl. administrative
Member owners: 11,000