Co-ops faring well despite recession

Membership is on the rise at Wedge, Linden Hills co-ops

Local musician John Sagner might not be willing to foot the bill for cool vintage amps anymore, but he doesn’t think twice about making the drive from his home in St. Paul to The Wedge Community Co-op for fruit and veggies.

Like a lot of people, Sagner is pinching pennies. But cut out his co-op? No way.

It’s a mindset Wedge Member Services Manager Elizabeth Archerd said is shared among many members.

“These are people who understand the value of food in their lives and I think we’ve got members here who would give up their TV before they’d give up shopping at the co-op,” she said.  

Despite the gloom that is hovering over many traditional businesses these days, local co-ops said support is strong and growing. The Wedge is still at its usual pace of signing up 23 to 35 new members each week, Archerd said. Membership is on the rise at Linden Hills Co-op, too, said General Manager Luke Schell. Seward Co-op Grocery and Deli on the east end of Minneapolis will celebrate the grand opening of its newly expanded store this month.

Minneapolis is well known for its decades-long support of grocery co-ops, but even smaller, alternative stores such as Urban Earth Flower & Garden Co-op are growing — and members are giving. Customers there recently contributed $10,000 in a one-day fundraiser.  

Why all the success? Co-op members, employees and experts said there are several reasons why bad times are good times for the customer-owned business model.   

Kevin Edberg, executive director of St. Paul-based co-op support organization Cooperative Development Services, said during difficult times, people look for things they can control.

 “In this period of national turmoil, I can’t control any of that,” Edberg said. “But I can control what goes on in my community.”

In a traditional customer-owned co-op, Edberg said, members make a one-time payment that buys them stock in the business. As members, they can receive a number of benefits including rebates from co-op income not invested in the store. And those who join can have a say in how the co-op is run by electing members to a board of directors or serving on the board themselves.  

At a time when some of the nation’s largest companies are under scrutiny for poor business practices, some people find comfort in the ability to help steer their co-op’s operations.    

“I think people trust us,” Archerd said. “We’re owned by your neighbors. We’re not here to pull a fast one on ya. We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to have to face you at the annual meeting.”

Personal values are also highlighted during tough times, Edberg said, and those values are evident at co-ops, especially grocery stores.

“Food is an intimate experience for people and people express their values in the food they eat,” he said.

Sagner, the musician, said he values fresh produce and can’t find the same quality outside The Wedge co-op. He said he pays a little more for it than he would at a traditional grocery store, but it’s worth it.

Kris Lyons, a longtime Linden Hills Co-op member, said she values local and organic food. She said she’s made a couple trips to Cub Foods recently for lower prices on some items, but her co-op is a mainstay, especially for bulk purchases.

Archerd said buying in bulk is a way to support a co-op while eating healthy and affordably. The stereotype that shopping at a co-op has to be expensive is bogus, she said, as long as customers are willing to put forth some effort when they get home.

“If you want to eat out of the freezer, everything ready made, you are going to pay top dollar no matter what,” she said. “And if you want to eat cheaply, cook.”

And in general, a tight pocketbook shouldn’t translate into unhealthy eating, she said.

“When people are hurting financially, especially if they’ve lost their health insurance, why on earth would they start eating crappier food? That puts a premium on eating well. That makes eating well all the more important,” Archerd said.

Overall sales at The Wedge Co-op are down slightly, but trending back up, Archerd said. She expects the store to finish on par or ahead of last year. The customers are still there, but they’re shopping differently, she said, taking advantage of sales and buying more bulk.

The Linden Hills Co-op is seeing the same thing, general manager Schell said — a growth in customers, but a reduction in “basket counts,” the number of items each customer buys. February was slow, but March is looking much better, he said.

He said a “nesting” trend toward living, working and shopping local is helping co-ops. Linden Hills Co-op is constantly expanding its local offerings to meet demand, he said.

Jennifer Racho, a member of Urban Earth’s board of directors, said paying attention to member needs is paramount. The little garden shop almost closed in January after unsuccessfully trying to take on the flower arrangement and delivery services that were in the location before it. After reprioritizing and taking a look at what the members and greater community really wanted, Urban Earth is back in business.

“People want to invest in something that has a great deal of meaning to them, especially when economic times are hard,” Racho said. “They want to invest in something with good energy, something that is local that they can see flourish.”

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]