Chatham Marketplace Opens Its Doors

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The new entrance welcomes shoppers

“When are you opening?” Without exaggeration, I can say I must have heard that question about 954 times in the last few months. After three years of effort, our cooperative finally opened on May 18, 2006.

Chatham Marketplace began as an idea that Melissa Frey had. She believed deeply in the co-op structure and had volunteered at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, North Carolina. She decided it was time to bring a co-op to her growing rural county next door.

Chatham County is an unusual area filled with artistic and activist people. Oddly, it also has a rapidly growing “on farm” population. Chatham is a place where small, sustainable farms are springing up all over the place.

Getting started
Laying the groundwork for a new co-op, Melissa took a business class at the community college and began writing a business plan. Melissa had diverse experience: in organic gardening, quality control, construction, and raising kids! I was one of the lucky ones who talked to her about the co-op in the early stages. Immediately, I was excited and had to help. I had no experience in the co-op world or the whole foods realm, but I had a lot of sales and marketing experience.

We formed a board of directors: Laura Lauffer’s sustainable agriculture experience in the Peace Corps served us well as she worked on the purchasing policies and with local producers. Kathleen Conroy added her passion, business management experience, and sales, marketing, and public relations expertise. John Bonitz brought policy development experience as well as farming expertise and helped us put together our Policy Governance standards. Over time we added three more board members with varied professional experience: Gretchen Witzgall, Corinne Dunn, and Tes Thraves.

The board was completely dedicated. Backed by Melissa’s perseverance and organization, we continually met our goals of ownership numbers and investment dollars. We were creative and held event after event to spread our enthusiasm.

When the going got tough, we hired an organizational therapist to walk us through the group dynamics. Understanding our different personality types and communication styles helped us immensely.

Our sister co-op, Weaver Street Market, held our hand the entire way. I really don’t know how we will ever repay all the advice, encouragement, and site visits their members and staff provided, especially Ruffin Slater and James Watts. Peg Nolan of Cooperative Development Services also helped answer tough questions.

Christy Raulli from Weaver Street marketing talked to our owners when we decided to change midstream to a year-end patronage refund. Windy Niebler came to train our new employees on customer relations. Weaver Street truly understands the co-op principles, and I hope that when it opens its next store, we can help.

Getting serious
A big turning point came when we hired Bill Gessner of Cooperative Development Services. This was a huge leap for us, yet I think it proved to be the difference between success and failure. We didn’t think we could afford it at the time, and we thought that with our board’s combined expertise we really didn’tneed a consultant. Yet Bill and his colleague Stephen Wolfe provided a development roadmap with real data which we used for setting realistic goals and starting our fundraising campaign.

Bill also helped us begin the relationship with the National Co-op Bank in Washington. Melissa worked diligently with Bill on a five-year financial outlook, which became our tool for deciding the square footage, numbers for hiring a general manager, and our goals for local fund-raising. The board raised $345,000 in local investment, and our 875 ownerships added $110,000. These enabled us to get a loan from the National Co-op Bank for $600,000.

We thought we could get our market open in about a year, but we simply had no idea of the challenges that we would face. The biggest of these was finding the perfect location.

We hired Peter Davis of Cooperative Development Services to help us make the site decision. Our instinct was to put the co-op in a charming old mill a half mile from the center of town. When we first met with the management of the Chatham Mills, we came away thinking that there was no way we could afford to upgrade this historic building. We started searching the entire town, from an old funeral parlor to a chicken hatchery to an old post office.

Size, parking and expansion space seemed to all point back to Chatham Mills. We started negotiating in earnest with Tom Roberts, the owner of the mill. Tom would become an important partner in our project. After many months, and after bringing on a real estate agent to help, we secured a lease on a 6,000-square-foot space.

We then started on general manager recruitment. Again with Bill Gessner’s help, we narrowed our nationwide search to a few good candidates. The general manager search committee was thrilled to hire Mary Demare Stivers, then the interim GM of Newark Natural Foods in Delaware. Mary had the co-op passion, the people skills, and the right experience to fit into this community and make Chatham Marketplace a success. She later hired a team of five managers, who in turn hired 21 more local folks to complete the Chatham Marketplace staff.

Build it and they will come
It was time to start building a grocery store. We thought we could renovate the old mill in a few months and be open by November 2005. Our owners were ready and waiting and totally excited. When it became apparent that we would not hit the November deadline, we said February, then March, then April, and finally we opened on May 18, 2006. I will never set a date again!

We hired Alicia Ravetto, a LEED-certified architect, to make our renovation as green as possible. Adapting to the constraints of an old mill, she designed in energy-efficient lighting, as many windows as we could manage, the use of recycled and local products, energy conserving appliances, and local recycled flooring.

We hired Tuesday Fletcher, a local artist, to paint wooden signs for the aisles, which gave the space a very warm feeling. Our produce manager, Shiloh Avery, turned produce display into art, creatively fit into a small area. It is what greets customers as they walk into the store. The effect is stunning.

Opening day brought tears to board members and staff and even some of the owners. Chatham Marketplace was bright and clean, and it smelled good. The best part of all was seeing the excitement and astonishment of everyone who entered the store. They walked the aisles and were greeted by the perfect mix of groceries, cappuccinos, and whole foods. They could buy sushi for the first time in Pittsboro and could order sandwiches from our deli.

A lot of blood, sweat and tears had gone into the making of another co-op grocery, already a landmark in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

See other articles from this issue: #125 July - August - 2006