A Community of Co-ops Grows in Philly

check out line at store

By 2007, Weavers Way Co-op was a Philadelphia neighborhood institution, with a growing urban farm program, expanding partnerships with local schools, nearly 3,000 member households, and annual sales of $7 million. At 3,000 square feet, the small corner store was overcrowded, and consultants advised the manager to close it and relocate to a 12,000-square-foot supermarket-sized location in a nearby commercial district. 

The move would have made sense in a lot of ways, but the co-op’s members didn’t want a supermarket; they liked their human-scaled store. And there was no way Weavers Way could abandon the very special community that created it (a point referred to by the consultants as the "HOP" factor, for "Heads on Pikes"). So the co-op decided to open a second location. 

When word got out that Weavers Way was seeking a second location, an amazing thing happened: the co-op was inundated with interest from groups in neighborhoods across the city and towns across the region. "The level of interest surprised me," says Weavers Way General Manager Glenn Bergman. 

Bergman and members of Weavers Way’s board and senior management met with many of the groups, setting up town meetings to answer questions and gauge the level of interest. But Weavers Way’s primary commitment was to its current members, which meant opening a second store close enough that it could serve current members and also relieve overcrowding at the original location. It was a disappointment to the communities that were too far away. But, while Weavers Way couldn’t open stores in those neighborhoods, it could help them start co-ops of their own. That’s when another amazing thing happened: a lot of them decided to do just that. 

New levels of growth and cooperation

Not all of those groups have followed up, but some are well on their way. Currently, there are at least eight new co-ops in various stages of formation in the Greater Philadelphia area, and a vibrant cooperative community brings them all together. "I think people are realizing that the way we as a society have been doing business isn’t working," says Colleen Marsh, steering committee co-director of the startup Bethlehem Co-op. "They want to see successful businesses that don’t just mean one person comes out on top, but that benefit the whole community."

It is not just the startups that have seen new levels of growth and cooperation. While Weavers Way was busy opening that second location in Chestnut Hill and planning the 2012 renovation of its original store, Mariposa Co-op in West Philadelphia was planning its move to a much bigger space, which opened in 2012. Swarthmore Co-op (opened 1937) moved to its current location in 2004. And while the city’s food co-ops had long operated in a sort of friendly remove—supportive, reciprocal, but kind of remote—they are now in close communication.

A co-op on every corner

Today, there is more cooperative activity than at any time since the early 1970s, when the Philadelphia area had over a dozen food co-ops. While most of those earlier co-ops have long since closed, the current level of cooperation and mutual aid bodes well for co-ops. 

CreekSide Co-op in Elkins Park is the first of the new co-ops to open its doors (see page 23). Other groups working hard to open new co-ops inside the city include Kensington Community Food Co-op (KCFC), with 280 members; South Philly Food Co-op (SPFC) with 325 members; and Manayunk Food Co-op. Startups outside the city include Bethlehem Food Co-op, Doylestown Food Co-op, and Ambler Co-op.

 Aside from CreekSide Co-op, Weavers Way’s material support to these groups has so far been limited, but the advice and guidance it has shared have been important to their efforts. "Weavers Way has always been the example of what we can become," says Kensington Co-op Vice President Peter Frank. "The enthusiastic support from the board and staff has given us the confidence to always push forward with our work. Mariposa Co-op has been very supportive as well, sharing with us the details of their recent expansion project and being an example of how an urban food co-op can serve an economically and culturally diverse community. KCFC is stepping into an established Philadelphia food co-op community with 40 years of experience, which is a much nicer environment for a startup than being pioneers in a region."

As interest in starting new co-ops grew, Weavers Way became involved in helping co-ops further outside the city. "Weavers Way has been a mentor to us from the start," says -Colleen Marsh of Bethlehem Food Co-op, 60 miles away. "Weavers Way connected us to the people and organizations we need to know, invited us to the Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) conference, and offered to help in any way possible. David Woo, former board president, has also gone out of his way to offer support and advice."

The resources, knowledge, and experience of established co-ops such as Weavers Way, Swarthmore, and Mariposa have been invaluable to the new co-ops. But just as valuable has been the mutual support and the sharing of experiences, the victories and the frustration among the startups themselves. In an ever-changing social, economic, regulatory, and political landscape, keeping in touch and learning from those who have emerged from the phase you are just entering is enormously helpful.

"It’s been great going through the development process with the South Philly Food Co-op," says Kensington’s Frank. "Having a peer network to check in with is incredible. As volunteers, we have an enormous task, creating a democratic organization, raising large amounts of money, and planning a business in one of the most challenging industries. Because there is a similar group struggling with the exact same issues, we can bounce ideas off each other or ask each other how we’re doing certain things. We can also share important contacts and build a greater media presence to educate all of Philadelphia what a food co-op is." 

"KCFC has actively supported some of the newer startups in the region," says Frank. "We organized and hosted a member recruitment training workshop with the Food Co-op Initiative." 

The established co-ops have also enjoyed an increased level of this type of peer support. "Weavers Way has always been able to lend a hand in technical support and has been a big help when it comes to systems," says Swarthmore Co-op General Manager Marc Browngold. "We tend to lend expertise when it comes to food, sustainability, meat and seafood production, produce buying." 

Weavers Way also lent a hand with Mariposa’s recent expansion. "Weavers Way was a huge help throughout our entire several year expansion process," said Bull Gervasi, Mariposa Co-op produce buyer and facilities coordinator. "Weavers Way’s member loan program was what our highly successful program was modeled after. Once we started preparing the store to open, Weavers Way sent and paid several members and workers to our store to help set it up." 

New cooperative structures 

While the cooperation and support among individual co-ops has been an important component of their successes so far, new cooperative bodies have arisen to facilitate such cooperation. 

In 2009, people from Weavers Way and other area co-ops planned a more structured framework for mutual support. In April 2010 the new organization was given a name, the Mid-Atlantic Food Co-op Alliance (MAFCA), and a mission: 

"The Mid-Atlantic Food Co-op Alliance exists for the mutual benefit of its members and the greater community in which we live. Our purpose is to grow the cooperative economy; provide education about co-ops; and build a sustainable and equitable system of healthy, local food production, distribution, and consumption."

The most concrete manifestation of that mission so far came in April 2011 with the Mid-Atlantic Conference for Startup Food Co-ops, a day of workshops and presentations that brought together 131 people from 53 organizations in 12 states, including 24 startup food co-ops and 10 existing food co-ops, as well as development agencies, colleges and universities, and governmental bodies. 

"MAFCA’s conference for startups was incredibly helpful," says Frank. "It helped us formulate our vision, develop and refine strategies, and expose several new volunteers to the broader co-op movement." 

Meanwhile, another group had also started meeting, featuring some of the same people. Consisting primarily of retail food co-ops, this group also included credit unions, housing co-ops, and worker-owned co-ops, with an objective of fostering cooperation and mutual support among co-ops of all sectors, and providing support and assistance for new co-ops of any of those types. The group, which became the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA), wrote a resolution honoring cooperatives and recognizing the United Nations’ International Year of Cooperatives and submitted it to freshman City Councilperson Cindy Bass. Bass introduced it at the Philadelphia City Council’s first meeting of the year, and it passed unanimously.

PACA also, along with the city of Philadelphia’s Commerce Department, put together an academic conference on cooperatives. Planning moved ahead with what organizer Bob Noble describes as a combination of "in-reach and outreach: in-reach to co-ops, and outreach to partnerships and coalitions, the city of Philadelphia, the Delaware Regional Planning Commission, and the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations." The conference took place at Drexel University in June 2012, immediately prior to the CCMA conference, also in Philadelphia. It presented case studies on food co-ops, worker co-ops, energy co-ops, producer co-ops, and credit unions. More than 200 people attended.

More recently, in November 2012, PACA hosted 70 members of area co-ops for a Philadelphia Area Co-op Summit at Drexel to mark the transition from the UN-declared International Year of Cooperatives to the cooperative decade. Attendees came from diverse types of co-ops. Bob Noble, who helped organize the summit, said, "We used the day to pause, take stock, envision the future, set goals, and build capacity for area cooperatives and PACA." 

KCFC’s Peter Frank, another summit organizer, said, "We want to connect the growth of Philadelphia area co-ops to the broader co-op movement nationally and internationally. In the next decade, we want to establish the cooperative business model as the acknowledged leader in economic, social, and environmental sustainability." 

By the end of the summit, PACA had a new steering committee, a mandate for incorporation and bylaws, and a list of projects that includes a regional economic impact study of cooperatives, a cooperative development loan fund, and a university-based center to perform cooperative studies and research and provide technical assistance for co-op expansions and startups. 

Having seen the concrete benefits that accrue from working together, virtually everyone associated with the Philadelphia area’s co-op scene is excited about greater cooperation in the future. 

Weavers Way General Manager Glenn -Bergman would like to see a permanent structure in place to support both startups and existing co-ops. "There’s a tremendous amount of work being done by the people at startup co-ops," says Bergman. "I’m glad we could help them, but what I’d really like to see is a permanent structure in place, dedicated to helping these groups get co-ops off the ground, with hands-on, practical know-how, advice, and assistance. I often joke with the credit unions and foundations, ‘Give me a million dollars and we can get four co-ops off the ground and pay back the investment in two years!’ People are hungry out there for what co-ops have to offer, and we in the co-op community have an obligation to help them get it." 

See other articles from this issue: #164 Jan-Feb 2013