Natural Foods Merchandiser

Focus on community

There's "thinking globally, acting locally," and then there's a staggering dedication to community improvement and service. That's the way at Philadelphia's Weavers Way Co-op. Consider the Weavers Way farm, a half-acre plot about two miles from the store. The farm supplies produce to the co-op as well as educational farming experience to outside groups such as a local school for the deaf.

The seed of community involvement was planted in 1973 when Jules Timmerman gathered members as he sold apples out of his station wagon. Within months, membership was 500 strong, and Timmerman kept the whole works running with 70- to 80-hour, pay-free workweeks. By 1980, the co-op had established a credit union, a heating-oil co-op and a second store, the East Mount Airy Co-op. Clearly, a community-focused energy was essential to the co-op from the beginning.

Co-op of community
Weavers Way employees are fervent about community involvement. "I think a lot of our success is about community, not food," says Weavers' General Manager Glenn Bergman. "The food is almost secondary." But that community focus pays off in sales—the store has seen 13 percent to 14 percent growth for the first half of 2008.

The co-op's Marketplace Program is "a partnership with local schools in which students buy healthy, locally produced products at cost from Weavers Way Co-op, then package, price and sell them to students and teachers," Bergman says. The 1/3-acre Seeds for Learning Farm at Martin Luther King High School—which is projected to earn $15,000 to $20,000 for the school this year—is the first such project.

In 2007, with community projects proliferating, the co-op felt it necessary to form an umbrella organization, Weavers Way Community Programs, "to develop, oversee and expand the community enrichment work of Weavers Way Co-op," Bergman says.

A recycling co-op is also in the works. "That's not something you'd see at Whole Foods or Acme," he says. "But that's how people think here. It's a core group that really does believe in community."

Perhaps part of the store's community focus arises naturally from the surroundings. Bergman says there is no "CVS or Borders " in Weavers' northwest corner of the city, but a lot of people who are predisposed to caring about the environment and other social issues, such as local purchasing.

The way of growth
The end result of the co-op's hard work and the faithful support of the community has actually turned into a problem, Bergman says: growth. Along with its community projects, the co-op also runs sister store Weavers Way Ogontz—named for its neighborhood—and a pet store, and is forming another co-op in nearby Cheltenham.

A new location for Weavers is on the table, too. "We have to find another store," Bergman says. "We don't want to leave here, even though it would be better for us. Everyone likes the store in this double row house on the corner. We're not sure yet how to expand." Finding a place that would give just the right amount of business while maintaining the intimate community-building feeling is a challenge, he says—a challenge that will almost certainly be solved communally.

Bryce Edmonds is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

Spotlight on produce

General Manager Glenn Bergman says the produce department is the spot to hit at Weavers. "The selection is amazing," he says. In late August the store was carrying conventional eggplant, as well as an organic variety from New Jersey and four different types from Weavers' farm. Not bad for a store with a maximum capacity of 40 people.

Weavers Way Co-op
Mount Airy, 559 Carpenter Lane, Philadelphia, 2,800 square feet
Weavers Way Co-op Pet Store, 608 Carpenter Lane, Philadelphia, 700 square feet
Weavers Way Co-op Ogontz, 2129 72nd Ave., Philadelphia, 650 square feet
Revenue: $7.5 to $8 million projected for 2008
Store employees: 38 full time, 29 part time
Farm employees: One full time, one part time, two interns
WWCP employees: Three

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 8/p. 46

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