Opportunity Knocks in Moscow

Co-op doubles in size, members provide half the financing

moscow_produce.jpg
The Produce department

Just over a year ago the Moscow Food Co-op board of directors gathered for our annual planning retreat. Moscow is a small college town of about 21,000 located in the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse in North Central Idaho. Folks who move here tend to stay since the quality of life is so easy.

On the retreat agenda was whether or not to renew the lease at our current location. The 7,000-square-foot store was fine, although the staff were cramped in their tiny offices and meetings had to be held out of the store. All signs pointed towards re-signing the current lease for another five years.

However, over coffee and treats we heard that a long-desired “perfect” location would shortly be available. Our plans for the meeting flew out the window with the group’s excitement over this news. Located in the downtown core, the proposed site had started life as a Safeway in the 1960s and since the ’80s had been home to a string of struggling sporting goods stores. With the news, we jumped to ensure that the Moscow Food Co-op could either buy the building or secure a lease.

Negotiations with the landlord were surprisingly easy, and everything seemed to fall into place. We drew up a 15-year lease with an option to purchase if it ever becomes available. The first steps came all at once: developing the budget for the project, securing the financing, hiring an architect, and finding a project manager. Being in a small town, we knew what resources were available. We contacted three local architects and from that pool selected the one most suited to the job. Daniel K. Mullin’s firm specializes in design-build projects, and they enjoy adaptive reuse projects such as this one. Dan felt this would be an especially challenging project for his firm, plus he was interested in working with sustainable materials as well as with local subcontractors as much as possible. All that, and the fact that his office was less than a block from the job site, added up to a match made in heaven.

The board helped develop the budget of a million dollars, primarily based on what we thought we could afford, with a small portion of the money coming from within the co-op and the bulk coming in the form of loans. A member loan program was started in February 2005, and within 8 weeks we had raised $450,000 from our members in low-interest, unsecured loans. A private lending institution (whose principals reside in Moscow) provided the other $500,000 at a reasonable rate. The project was a go!

We developed a floor plan based on management input meshed with the architect’s ideas. We also hired Alan Seidner to help develop our kitchen concept. The co-op had already developed a well-deserved reputation within the community for great food, but had no seating to speak of. Members frequently wished for indoor seating and a greater selection—here was an opportunity to grow that part of our co-op.

We carved out 1,200 square feet of the new store for the kitchen production area, with one half for deli production and one half for our in-house bakery. The wrap-around service line offers espresso, pastries, hot entrees, a service case, a sandwiches-made-to-order bar, a grab ’n’ go case, a bakery case, an olive bar, and a six-foot cheese case. Wow!

With the floor plan finalized, work on the project finally began in May with cuts in the concrete floor. We choose a polished concrete floor as the basis for our design because of its practicality as well as good looks, plus we wanted to keep that “funky” co-op feel.

As the months progressed, it looked increasingly as if my first projected move-in date of mid-August was not going to happen. We postponed moving several times until mid-October, the last possible moment. Many things were still not completed, but our previous lease expired and left us no choice but to move.

Lessons from an old hand

Having relocated the store two earlier times, I had learned some lessons. All along the way I kept my staff informed and involved through weekly memos and frequent whole store meetings. We kept all staff apprised of where we were, how it would affect them, what they could expect to happen next, and how it would affect their jobs. We instituted a Workers Council as a preventative measure and required attendance at communication trainings, and as a result of all these actions the staff was extremely supportive and understanding throughout the entire project.

We also strived to keep the community involved. First, we held a fund-raising dinner and auction where we raised over $15,000. Next was a parking lot party (which just broke even but sure was fun!). I had numerous Saturday morning store tours where I stood at the threshold of our new home and gave a verbal tour of what members could expect. A tile-painting project involved kids of all ages and is now one of the most popular focal spots in our store.

A committee of interested members worked to help us locate and select as many sustainable materials as possible. Our wellness section shelves are made from recycled wheat straw, our cash register counters from paper, the bathroom counter is recycled aluminum, and the list goes on. We strived to use as many low-impact materials as possible for our chemically sensitive customers, and as a result, all customers love our store. They say it feels warm and welcoming and doesn’t have that nasty new store smell.

We doubled every department within our co-op and added a fresh meat counter. We were lucky enough to hire a meat manager who not only had experience with “natural” meat but also wanted to offer value-added products to our customers such as his freshly made meatballs and meatloaf. He also wanted his department to be extremely clean so our customers would not smell the meat as they walked in. We succeeded on all counts, and our meat department now grabs 6.5 percent of total store sales.

The co-op has doubled its store square footage, doubled its staff, and is on the way to doubling its sales. Sales have grown 60 percent over the same period one year earlier and 24 percent for the entire year. Of course, none of this could have happened without the support of our community and the hard work of our staff.

***

Kenna Eaton is general manager at Moscow Food Co-op in Idaho ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #123 March - April - 2006