Natural Foods Merchandiser

From hippie haven to state-of-the-art store

To hear a member of the North Coast Co-op describe it, the new location in Eureka, Calif., is a wonderland of good smells, local foods and community happenings—even more so than the old store. The store bustles with cooking demonstrations in the new restaurant-grade kitchen, and with customers sampling products throughout the store. Shoppers can even catch some live music in the atrium outside the entrance, and soon will be able to peruse the shelves in the education room, a spot that will be free of marketing and filled with books and pamphlets.

Members of the Eureka co-op can enjoy free wireless Internet and free grocery delivery. The bulk section boasts more than 1,000 items, and all of the produce is organic. The co-op hosts a farmers' market in the parking lot each week. Sound irresistible?

Consumers thought so, if sales and membership are any indication. The co-op pulled its advertising for fear the new store would be overrun on opening day, says James Scothorn, creative services director of North Coast Co-op. After the grand opening in September 2006, sales went from an average of $90,000 a week to $200,000 a week, and the co-op met its goal of 500 new members after only five weeks.

The co-op had a far more humble beginning in Arcata, Calif., just across the bay from the new Eureka store, in 1973. "It was just a couple of folks who got together, drove down to San Francisco in a VW bus, loaded it up with, you know, wheat berries and a wheel of cheese, then drove it all back up here and split up the food amongst themselves," Scothorn says. Scothorn is the 286th member of the co-op, which has since grown to about 10,600 members and two stores.

The first retail location in Arcata started small and moved to several increasingly larger locations. The second store, only 5,000 square feet, opened in Eureka in 1996, but within a year the co-op board knew the store was too small and began to plan the next move.

The co-op, which offers membership for a single payment of $25, is run by a board of directors, which tries to sort out the input of its 10,600 members. The members can submit ideas in a suggestion box, by e-mail, by speaking with a member in the flesh or by attending the monthly meetings.

"It's a balancing act," Scothorn says. "Sometimes it's hard to strike a compromise between, for instance, 10 people who don't want the store to sell meat and the other 98 percent who buy meat."

When planning the new location, the task was to listen to all the voices and come up with a store that would make as many people happy as possible. One of the main goals was to make the store environmentally friendly. This meant reusing part of the old bakery on the building site, crushing and reusing old cement, and recycling wood and steel. The new cabinetry is made of recycled wheat-straw fiberboard with countertops made of hemp-based paper and eco-friendly resins. The floor is made of linseed oil, resins and wood flour, backed with jute. The floor mats are made from recycled tires.

Len Mayer, general manager at the co-op, says it benefited from observing other stores' designs. "There is such a network of natural food stores out there that we were able to take some trips and kind of look over people's shoulders. We were able to see what worked and what didn't."

Scothorn himself was a proponent of basing the store around the concept of an old village square. "The new store has a central space where food producers gather, just like an old farmers' market, but it is more than just a commercial space. The village common was also a place for social, educational and political events," Scothorn says.

True to the vision, there is a community meeting room that can hold about 25 people, where groups as diverse as the Scrabble Club of Humboldt and the Bee Keepers Society can meet for free. The new kitchen is used for food demonstrations during the day, and becomes a cooking school at night. Some of the classes are sponsored by the co-op and run by groups such as Food for People, Farm to School, and Women, Infants and Children. These classes are free and many are designed to teach people how to make their food budget stretch farther. For example, a person can buy 25 pounds of pinto beans for the same price as a meal at McDonald's, so the class might focus on different ways to cook pinto beans.

Each month the co-op hosts a food-theme day, with several small raffle prizes and one grand prize, which is a case of food every month for a year. The themes are broad, like produce, dairy and heart-healthy. On the food-theme day, samples of products within the theme are available throughout the store. Member Appreciation Day also comes once a month and means members get 10 percent off their entire purchase.

With nearby access to a variety of climates and terrain, the store can easily source locally produced foods. Customers can choose from locally produced vegetables, cheeses and meats from a broad variety of climates.

The only problem for the North Coast Co-op is that shoppers at the original store in Arcata are clamoring for the same amenities that the Eureka store boasts. Scothorn says they hope a new store for Arcata will be possible soon, but they want to work out the kinks in Eureka before moving toward that project. In the meantime he encourages members to dream up new possibilities.

Hope Bentley is a Boulder, Colo.-based free-lance writer.

North Coast Co-op, Eureka location
25 Fourth St.
Eureka, CA 95501

General manager: Len Mayer
Number of members: 10,600

Retail space: 19,200 square feet
Annual Sales: $10.4 million

Full-time equivalent: 60

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 150

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