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A Little Co-Op in a Little State Thinks Big

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
A Little Co-Op in a Little State Thinks Big

Each day, Alternative Food Cooperative?s Assistant Manager Catherine Fuller brews a big pot of homemade tea for her customers.

In June, it?s a mixture of nettles, eyebright and lemon balm to ward off allergies. At the end of winter, it might be a spring-detox blend of cleavers herb, red clover and dandelion. Small, personalized touches like this keep co-op members and nonmembers returning to this Wakefield, R.I., store year after year.

The staff at the only retail cooperative in Rhode Island has to work hard to compete with the larger natural foods chains that have recently moved into the area. But they do it cheerfully and with enthusiasm, confident that the mission of their cooperative—food for people, not for profit—is as imperative now as it was when it first started in 1970.

Alternative Food started out as a caravan of station wagons and pick-up trucks that headed from South County to Boston?s Erehwon Natural Foods every month to pick up food for 12 families. As the group got bigger, the sagging back ends of the returning cars told the story: It was time to expand.

The co-op was offered a space in a local church. And then, with increased participation from University of Rhode Island faculty and students, it moved to the basement of Roosevelt Hall on campus. There it was able to hire paid staff for the first time. In 1994, the co-op moved to a space in West Kingston, where increased exposure enabled it to expand its membership and selection, and increase sales to the general public.

The co-op?s most recent move, in 2000, brought the store to the historic section of Wakefield. Its location on Main Street—a busy row of small restaurants, boutiques and antique shops—brings in a lot of foot traffic, as does a nearby, easily accessed bike path. The store itself is airy, bright and well-organized and includes a nook with a table where members can sip one of Fuller?s concoctions or a cup of organic joe and read the paper.

Despite its small space—only 1,350 square feet—the store is filled with a large variety of fresh produce, dry goods, bulk items, frozen foods, take-out sandwiches and soups, supplements, personal care products, household cleaners and more. About 85 percent of these products are organic and all are carefully researched and chosen by Manager Lauren Morris and her staff.

?We?re trying to offer a different selection from the bigger stores and steer away from bigger natural foods suppliers,? Morris says. ?We?ve tried our best to support small companies and brands who donate to important causes. That gives our customers peace of mind.?

Besides offering this unique variety of smaller brand?s products, the cooperative is also trying to build itself an important niche in the community by offering a variety of wheat-free and vegan foods that can be hard to find even in bigger natural foods stores. Another offering that sets it apart is its produce, which is 100 percent organic, 365 days of the year.

The co-op spreads the word using both grassroots and conventional methods. It regularly runs advertisements in local papers, as well as in Rhode Island tourism magazines, a good source of customers in the summer when tourists boost Wakefield?s population from 29,000 to 39,000.

Alternative Food also participates in local festivals like the Main Street Block Party, HempFest and Eco-Fair, selling natural sodas and snacks and handing out store coupons. Several annual events raise money for things like new shelving and racks, as well as increase the store?s presence in the community. One recent fund-raiser, an organic breakfast buffet of pancakes, tofu scrambles and vegetarian breakfast patties, attracted more than 100 people and raised more than $500. Events like this also serve to bring together the co-op?s members—453 people in all.

Holding community-building gatherings is just one of the many ways Alternative Food remains a viable alternative to the two Whole Foods stores that have recently moved into nearby Providence. Like many co-ops and natural foods markets, Alternative Food simply can?t compete with the prices at larger stores.

To keep customers and attract new members, despite higher prices, Morris and her staff dedicate themselves to making their store unique and appealing to shoppers. This dedication takes on a variety of forms, ranging from the thorough research and response that each customer product request gets to the co-op?s eclectic selection of gifts such as beeswax candles, handmade jewelry and recycled-glass stemware. While striving to create a store spirit that is welcoming to shoppers, Morris and Fuller remain mindful of the bigger picture.

?We want to do what is in the best interest of our customers, our members, our community and the environment,? says Morris. ?And we try to keep that in mind at all times.?

O?rya Hyde-Keller is a free-lance writer based in Madison, Wis.

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