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Delaware co-op looks to future, keeps eye on past

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
Delaware co-op looks to future, keeps eye on past

Although Newark Natural Foods just signed up member No. 8071, members No. 3 and No. 7 still shop there every week—no small feat for a store that?s been around for more than 35 years. This mix of the old and the new is what defines the only natural foods cooperative in Delaware. It?s a mix that brings challenges, but one that is also a testament to the store?s ability to persevere.

Founded by a group of people who pooled their money to buy unrefined, organically grown food, Newark Natural Foods began in 1967 as a wholesale buying club. In 1976, the club incorporated—becoming a co-op—and moved to a small house in downtown Newark, a location that had lots of character but limited space. In 1985, the co-op moved to its current storefront, a space that offered 3,600 square feet for retail, a 1,400-square-foot warehouse and lots of room to grow.

The store went through a reset two years ago—a decision that was greeted with dismay by many old members. Gone were the mismatched, multicolored shelves made by members or found at warehouse auctions, replaced by modern, uniform shelving. Track lighting was put in, and the produce section was moved to the front of the store—the first section customers saw when they walked in. ?It was a change, and some older members were worried that we would change into a typical grocery store,? says interim manager Mary DeMare Stivers. ?But we didn?t. It would be impossible for us.?

The store, she says, has retained its unique charm, with wooden flooring throughout, murals on the wall and a cozy coffee bar where customers can pass the time. ?We lost some of the messiness, but we didn?t lose the co-op feel,? Stivers says. The reset took two days of staff and volunteers working around the clock. The result? Produce sales went through the roof, and visitors were attracted to the newer, more approachable space.

But those weren?t the only changes these last few years. Eight years ago, the store was on the verge of bankruptcy, forcing a hard look at way the co-op was run. A new general manager was hired who worked closely with the board and members to get rid of overspending and to overhaul the pricing and stocking systems. The store also did away with a 15 percent markup policy for nonmembers. Currently, the co-op is looking to join with other co-ops to increase its buying power. It?s also implementing a point-of-sale system that Stivers says will reduce the cost of goods and get product moving more quickly.

These changes have not only helped the store?s finances, but they?re also part of an ongoing effort to attract new members. The co-op gets the word out to potential members by advertising on AM radio and on the screen of a nearby movie theater. In addition, an ad in the weekly newspaper features a different staff member, volunteer or co-op member each week, accompanied by a caption containing informational—and sometimes humorous—tidbits about the store.

Beyond advertising, the co-op works in several ways to strengthen and create bonds with the community: It donates money to organizations like Emmaus House, a local shelter for battered women and children, and to Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research. The co-op began offering discounted memberships to students at the University of Delaware, which has doubled the number of student members in the last year alone.

Despite creative advertising and the store?s new look, the co-op concept can still be a hard sell, and Stivers says that educating people unfamiliar with the benefits of organic and natural foods, even after all this time, is still one of the store?s biggest challenges. Recently, Newark Natural Foods began increasing its outreach efforts, manning booths at community events ranging from health fairs to local festivals like Hempfest. ?We try to go absolutely anywhere we can get in,? Stivers says.

Three years ago, the co-op established its own healthy local event: the town?s first farmer?s? market. Every Sunday, for a small fee, local and organic farmers set up their booths in the co-op?s parking lot. The market has been a huge success. ?Our customers really love it. There are very few things to do on foot in this town, since we?re in the middle of the whole Baltimore, Philly, Route I-95 area,? Stivers says. ?But on a nice Sunday, you?ll see lots of people who walk or ride their bikes to the market.? While the market has attracted attention and brought in business, its more important role, she says, has been as a tool of community connection.

While reaching out to and educating nonmembers is important, Stivers stresses the store?s ongoing commitment to its base—members like No. 3 and No. 7. And while the look of the store may have changed, the co-op remains deeply dedicated to its original purpose of making available a wide variety of affordable organic and natural foods as well as plenty of information and education about those foods.

Ninety-five percent of the store?s produce is organic, and the co-op buys locally whenever possible. The produce buyer has worked at Newark Natural Foods for 20 years, and the frozen food buyer has been there for 17 years, providing members with decades of accumulated health food knowledge. Stivers connects with members by sending out a weekly e-mail that lets them know about store specials and events, and says she can often walk around the store and know the name of everyone who is shopping there.

It seems that old members are coming around to the store?s new vision. A vote to implement the point-of-sale system passed easily, and no one is complaining about new developments like member appreciation day, where members are rewarded with 10 percent off everything in the store, not to mention free samples and back massages. And if it hadn?t been for some radical changes in the way the store did business, Stivers says, the co-op would no longer be around. ?Some people have said that we?re a lot more corporate now,? she says. ?But that?s the price we should be willing to pay to continue to run the store. Members are still in charge. They are still the reason for being here. But we have to be solvent to stay here.?

O?rya Hyde-Keller is a freelance writer in Madison, Wis.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 5/p. 58

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