At 7:00 p.m. on December 15, Just Food opened its doors for the first time to a waiting crowd. The members-only preview attracted hundreds of community supporters who came out in the cold to see their new store.
As we handed out treats and membership cards, one enthusiastic person was heard saying, “Who would have thought that the social event of the year in Northfield would be the member preview at Just Food?” The next day they were back with shopping lists, ready to fulfill their pent-up desires for fresh, organic produce, natural meats, quality cheeses and a wide assortment of locally produced foods.
Northfield is a small college town about 40 miles south of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The population of 18,000 includes about 3,000 students from Carleton College and St. Olaf College, two highly respected liberal arts institutions. By the end of January over 1,000 residents of Northfield and nearby communities had become members of Just Food.
The people of Northfield were ready for this co-op. After tens of thousands of hours volunteered by an extremely dedicated founding team and three years of membership and loan drives raising over $370,000, it all paid off with a beautiful store that reflects the needs and aspirations of our community.
Our location, one block from both major highways coming into town and one block from Northfield’s main street, not only provides us with a great location, it also serves to bring more shoppers into Northfield’s vibrant downtown. Local growers’ and producers’ products are prominent throughout the store. In a small, sunny seating area at the front of the store looking out on Water Street, customers meet for a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup from our deli counter. People do not just come to shop, they come here for the fun of it! The co-op is fast becoming a focal point—for people who share progressive political views, for the celiac community, and for the significant portion of our town that seeks out high-quality specialty foods made by local and European artisans.
Just Food Co-op has 4,200 square feet of retail space and almost 6,200 overall. Start-up costs were near $1 million, including $320,000 for building renovations, $160,000 in equipment, and about $110,000 in starting inventory. We are leasing about two-thirds of our building and are still waiting to find out who will be our eventual neighbors. Just Food has a full assortment of natural food groceries, wellness products, and general merchandise. We do not have any service counter departments or kitchen, due to limited space; however, we do make basic salads and sandwiches and serve hot soup.
Our staff of 30 comes almost entirely from the local community. A few key managers had experience in other co-ops before relocating to Northfield, but most of our staff learned their roles after being hired. During our first month of operations sales averaged over $7,000/day—well above the $6,050 our pro formas were based on.
I attribute the co-op’s early success to the broad community support built up by the work of the founding team and board of directors. When these people were building the foundations of Just Food, they listened to the pulse of their community, got the word out, and got the right people involved.
Another key factor was an ambitious staff development program that helped new managers and hourly employees get important training and experience before the store was open. Thanks to a grant from the Howard Bowers Fund (see next page), Just Food managers were able to spend time shadowing experienced peers in existing stores. Managers and hourly employees alike received introductions to customer service and co-op philosophy. So, for example, even when the POS system did not work as planned, the cashiers knew how to take care of the customers during our first week.
Additional support came from the Cooperative Development Services team of consultants, including Bill Gessner’s invaluable guidance, Pete Davis’ market research, financial advice from Kate Sumberg, dead-on merchandising by Janda Grove, and managers from Twin Cities co-ops who volunteered time and expertise to help us get started. Cooperation was the keyword, and if anyone doubts that it works, come see Just Food Co-op! *** Stuar Reid, formerly manager at Just Food Co-op, is director of Food Co-op 500 (www.foodcoop500.coop) and can be reached at [email protected].