A Food Co-op Does Much More than Sell Food

April 4, 2011

This week, we continue our series on strengthening our regional food system, a guest blog partnership with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Today’s guest blog comes from Weavers Way Co-op in Philadelphia.

Stenton Family Manor Cooperative 2

By Jonathan McGoran
Communications Director
Weavers Way

Since forming as a neighborhood buying club in the early 1970s, Weavers Way Co-op has enjoyed almost uninterrupted growth. Our success has made us an institution in Mt. Airy, a residential neighborhood in Northwest Philadelphia known for its diversity and its tree-lined streets, and we became an anchor for a small retail village – a bookstore, a coffee shop, and a variety of other small businesses – that rose up around us.

Over the years, our biggest challenge was managing an excess of demand for our tiny storefront. We expanded several times at our original Mt. Airy location, adding a second floor and purchasing an adjacent building. In response to customer demand, we opened a pet supply store across the street.

Weavers Way Farm

Weavers Way Farm 2

We expanded in other ways as well. We started a small, volunteer-run farm two miles away from the storefront, and hired a part-time farmer. The farm first produced a trickle of local products. But it had the potential to be much more.

Our Marketplace Program was also growing. Initially a partnership with a neighboring elementary school, Marketplace is a school-based cooperative food business, run by students, selling wholesome snacks to their schoolmates and teachers. The students learn about business, cooperative principles, nutrition, and the importance of locally produced food. The students research humanitarian causes in the community and around the world, and at the end of the year, they decide where to donate the Marketplace proceeds. Marketplace had expanded to several schools, but requests from other schools continue to outpace our capacity.

As our store’s growth in sales and membership continued, our need to expand exceeded what our retail village could handle. Sales were $8.5 million with just 3,300 square feet of retail space – more than $2,500 per square foot. Parking was becoming increasingly scarce, and as the congestion spread into the surrounding residential streets, increasingly problematic.

Consultants recommended closing our store and opening something like a supermarket somewhere else. But we didn’t want to be a supermarket, and more importantly, we weren’t about to leave our home in Mt. Airy. Part of what makes co-ops special is our commitment to community, and not just because it is one of our defining principles. We are invested in community because our community is invested in us. When you are owned by your members, by your shoppers and neighbors, you do not leave them for a “better” location.

Stenton Family Manor Cooperative

Stenton Family Manor oven

We decided to open a second store, and when word got out, we were inundated with interest from neighborhood groups wanting us to open in communities throughout Greater Philadelphia. Our first obligation was to our members, though, and our expansion needed to be close enough to our Mt. Airy store to relieve some of the crowding. But we told these groups that if they wanted a co-op, they could do it themselves, and we would help. Many of them did so, and there are new co-ops actively forming in South Philly, Kensington (in a Philadelphia neighborhood), Doylestown (Bucks County, PA), Elkins Park (Montgomery County, PA), and more.

Since that time, Weavers Way has opened two new stores, and like any business, each has faced unique challenges. Our store in West Oak Lane has struggled with attracting enough sales, and then finding the right level of staffing to be economically viable. Our Chestnut Hill store was more costly than originally envisioned, causing Weavers Way to take on considerable debt. Fortunately, sales in Chestnut Hill have far exceeded projections, bringing a noticeable increase in traffic to a commercial area that needed it.

Weavers Way Chestnut Hill store

As our stores have expanded, so have our other programs. In 2007, we expanded the size of our farm and hired a full-time farmer and part time farmers. With help from farm apprentices, interns, and volunteers, we harvested roughly $50,000 in produce from ¾ of an acre that first year. We also greatly increased our farm education programs, with hundreds of school kids touring the farm through the year.

Soon after, the Cooperative formed Weavers Way Community Programs (WWCP), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit arm, to oversee and expand our farm education and Marketplace programs. Within a couple of years, Marketplace was operating in nine local schools. Our farm program has expanded to four locations in Northwest Philadelphia, including a community supported agriculture farm partnership with Saul Agricultural High School, and the Hope Garden at Stenton Family Manor, the largest family homeless shelter in the city of Philadelphia.

While Weavers Way has been expanding, so has interest in co-ops across the region and the country. Weavers Way recently helped found the Mid Atlantic Food Co-op Alliance (MAFCA) to help co-ops work better together and help new co-ops form. MAFCA now has 31 members in six states, and Weavers Way is proud to be cosponsoring MAFCA’s first-ever Mid-Atlantic Conference for Start-up Food Co-ops, April 16, 2011 in Philadelphia.

Interest in food co-ops is surging for many reasons. The investment in community is important, but so is the trust that members can have in their co-op, in an institution that they own, that is committed to stated values, and to serving the people who shop there, not profiting from them. But it is also because, together with a mandate that is about more than the bottom line, cooperative values such as community, education, fairness, and sustainability, make co-ops uniquely well-suited to pursue innovative programs that not only improve the economic health of communities, but also the lives of the people who live in them.

Youth at Weavers Way

Images: Weavers Way Co-op

Part 1: Working Together for a Stronger Food System
(Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission)

Part 2: Collaborating for Healthy Families
(Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger)

This series continues next Monday