Against the Odds

Community buy-in builds new Berkshire Co-op

For 12 years, the Berkshire Co-op Market community discussed expanding its Great Barrington, Massachusetts store. Late in 2001, the board of directors began the project in earnest. A variety of consultants were brought in to assess internal readiness and a host of other typical issues.

Considering that the 20-year history of the Berkshire Co-op Market was, to use a polite term, inconsistent, and that the 2001 operation was severely lacking in workable systems, the entire project had to seem like a very long shot. Actually, a couple of consultants said “no way”—though they reported their findings in a much more eloquent style and none of them laughed out loud…at least publicly. A couple of consultants decided that it could be done, but were not terribly encouraging.

In April 2002, the “perfect” building became available. Great Barrington, a bustling town in the heart of the Massachusetts Berkshires, does not possess many free-standing buildings with adequate parking in the downtown area, and the decision was made to grab the opportunity. One week after being hired as general manager, I found myself sitting in the lawyer’s office negotiating a long-term lease.

By the way, for a better method of expansion I suggest that it may be far easier to develop a business plan, work on systems, and gradually begin to look for a building.
 

Revelation

Flash forward to October 24, 2003. Three days before opening the new store! I was sitting in my office after finding out that a serious physical plant issue had come up that would significantly delay the opening of the store. As with most projects, we were two months behind original schedule; we had been paying rent on two locations for 16 months; and we had gone through many incidents that could have stopped the project in its tracks. After persevering, running on adrenaline, and consistently being optimistic, I hit the proverbial wall. Putting my head in my hands and contemplating an alternative life that had something to do with being a beach bum on a tropical island, I truly did not know if I could continue.

I looked back out my window and saw a line of people forming from the front door of the new co-op and meandering back up the street and along Main Street in downtown. I had totally forgotten about “Groceries Across Great Barrington,” a symbolic gesture of members passing groceries from the old location to the new. It being a cold and snowy day, we really did not expect much participation. Instead, hundreds of folks turned out. Just as rewarding, businesses along the downtown route saw what was happening and sent out folks to participate. I went downstairs and walked the line trying to speak with the participants, but words failed me, and emotion took over. I still try to chalk it up to emotional exhaustion, but I really do know better.

Somewhere along the way, we had transformed from a struggling co-op with passive member support to a co-op that had an active and participatory member base, a co-op that had become part of the viable local business community, and a co-op that could lead by example…and we hadn’t even opened the store yet. Bricks and mortar are nice, but the building is merely the body. The community is the body’s heart and soul. At that precise moment, I knew that we had succeeded, and I knew that we would succeed when the store opened.
 

Outstanding sales growth

Bricks and mortar are not the most important element, but they should certainly be summarized.

For further evidence that we had been able to build community support and involvement before even opening our doors, we can look at the sales results. We may do well over $6 million this coming year, after originally projecting the store to peak at $6.2 million in 2008. We’ve been able to point to many contributing factors to explain this sales success, yet most of it still boils down to communication with membership.
 

Buy-in

Our members told us that they wanted specific things such as a fresh seafood department, wide aisles, a café with seating that also would serve as a social spot, adequate lighting, more bulk food choices, and an intimate and comfortable shopping experience. We took all of the suggestions and comments to heart and did our best to deliver. We also constantly posted floor plans at the old location and invited comment. We were also honest and open about the process. It was made clear that all voices would be heard; that we were attempting to build a new location with very little money, and that the ultimate decisions would be made by the experts running the project.

We continue to encourage discussion and input. The suggestion box at member services is filled each week. More important, we actually respond by telephone and by posting comments monthly on the walls of the store. Yes, the suggestions range from the sublime to sometimes the ridiculous, and yet we respond to all.
 

Current realities

There has been a price to pay for this unexpected success in sales. Systems developed for the new location took longer to take effect, departments could not expand offerings as needed, payroll ran far too high for months, and instead of experiencing a gradual learning curve, as staff we struggled to maintain standards.

We told our members that the Berkshire Co-op Market would lose money in our first year of expansion, regardless of sales success. I’m happy (?) to report that we have achieved our objective and will show a loss for this fiscal year. It is a mission in itself to communicate the co-op’s long-range goals and objectives to our community of members and staff.

We’ve also experienced the strain of change in more human terms. Although our values and mission remain the same, the business has had to change. We talk more of productivity, analyze success using more financial information, and still need to develop a sense of urgency that was lacking in the “old co-op.” Some staff and, yes, some managers erroneously believe that we have subverted our mission. We find ourselves at times pointing the finger at others to deflect challenges in our own development.

Some of us expected the project to end the day we opened the store, even though we had talked about the fact that our store opening day was the first day of a new project. I’m confident that I am not airing our “dirty laundry,” simply because all of these issues are typical of any project of this nature. In very general terms, the toughest adjustment continues to be for the staff with the most seniority. Some have left the co-op since relocation, and some will be able to adjust as we move forward. The continuing challenge is to accept the fact that some folks simply need to move on.

We continue to be a family, and as most of us realize, a family provides support and a certain bond, and a family can also be demanding and unreasonable at times. We are our own worst critics and have to remind ourselves to take a step back, compare where we are in almost every area to where we were two years ago—to take pride in our accomplishments as staff, managers, members, board members, and the community at large.
 

Local economy

Two weeks ago I spoke to a local grower about the impact our expansion has made on some of the local farmers. She had been considering getting out of farming after this year and spoke of increased difficulties in finding local stores willing to carry her product, of the chain grocery stores in our area that turn to local growers less and less. But because the co-op now has the space to truly promote local produce, her sales to us have increased by 600 percent over last year. Because our members, board of directors, and staff worked so diligently, and because the community at large supports us by shopping at the Berkshire Co-op Market, this grower will be planting next spring.

Other more talented contributors to this magazine have been able to supply specific instruction and advice to co-ops across the country looking to open another store, relocate, or expand current operations, and many future articles will be written that will prove to be more practical than this one. But to those who are considering such a project, and to those who sometimes wonder what the heck they have gotten themselves into, all I can say is: Take a breath, and try not to lose sight of what is truly important. A vibrant co-op helps build and sustain local community. We directly affect the quality of life in a positive way for ourselves and our neighbors. In spite of the occasional pain, there isn’t a job or career out there that can improve on the satisfaction of being part of all this.

See other articles from this issue: #114 September - October - 2004