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Moscow Co-op creates warm spot to chill

Hilary Oliver

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
Moscow Co-op creates warm spot to chill

"Have you heard the idea of third place?" asks Kenna Eaton, general manager for the Moscow—pronounced moss-ko—Food Co-op in Moscow, Idaho. "In peoples' lives, the first place is their home, the second is usually work, and the third is their place of community. For some, it's church, for others it's a bar. We want the co-op to be a third place."

From the shop's design—a former sporting goods store refurbished in 2005—to its community events, the Moscow co-op wants to be the go-to spot for people interested in community, organics and natural products.

"We're a small college town in the middle of rolling wheat fields," Eaton says. "There are not a lot of places for the community to meet." So the co-op's new digs, only two blocks from its former location, has a lot of open space between aisles and in the deli's seating area, conducive to comfortable conversations and friends having a place to meet up and hang out. "We want shopping to be an experience, not just a chore," Eaton says, explaining that because winter is a six-month season in Idaho, people need a warm, inviting indoor space. This one just happens to be a grocery store, too.

The light fixtures hang low from the store's dark-gray ceiling, bringing a cozy glow to the shop's vegetable-hued walls. Shoppers can sit down for a meal—like the co-op's popular pesto cheese roll or kale-slaw—in the deli, which accounts for 23 percent of the store's daily sales. Or they can grab freshly marinated meat to throw on the grill for dinner, or salivate over freshly baked goods made with local and organic ingredients. And twice a month, for $25 to $30 per person, the co-op hosts a four-course dinner and wine tasting in the middle of the store, aimed at building community. "You'll sit with people you don't really know," Eaton says. "And by the end, you know that person."

For the 32-year-old co-op to successfully step into its new 15,000-square-foot building, which is twice the size of its old location, it had to double its staff and borrow a chunk of money. By relying on members for loans and working hard at keeping communication open with employees, the co-op has made the move smoothly, with sales around 42 percent higher in the new location than the old.

"About half the money we borrowed was from member loans," Eaton says. "We raised $450,000 in six weeks." Members were glad to loan the money because they felt they were really investing in their community and it was the right thing to do, she says. As the restorations advanced and the store's opening approached, Eaton would host open houses for the community and investors to see the progress and give them a chance to comment on how things were going. Even now, Eaton says, "Whether it's about bike racks or the parking lot, we're always looking for community input before we make a change."

Communication has also been vital in making the jump to managing 100 employees. "We wanted to make sure our internal structure could handle a doubled staff," Eaton explains. "We had lots of meetings to answer questions, and took a lot of [the employees'] advice." Part of that advice resulted in a large new break room for employees.

Because the University of Idaho is in Moscow and Washington State University is seven miles away in Pullman, the co-op hires a significant number of students who, according to Eaton, bring a lot of energy to the business but often end up leaving at the end of the semester. But Eaton's core management team has stayed with her through the long haul—perhaps, she muses, because it's a great place to work.

"We try to offer decent benefits and a healthy work environment," Eaton says. "We're thinking about our employees all the time, trying to make sure they have all the tools and training they need."

Again, part of the healthy work environment is communication. Eaton holds a workers' council every month to get feedback and discuss new ideas. She says it helps her implement her decisions in the way that is most pleasant to the staff.

Also, Eaton says, the co-op pays its employees more than the Idaho minimum hourly wage, which is $5.15. Though it's not an easy process, the co-op is trying to pay its employees a living wage, which she is quick to say the Idaho minimum wage is not.

Now that the buzz about the new location is beginning to die down, Eaton says she feels the need to extend the co-op's community outreach, from talking to students during the first week of school to amping up the local natural products radio show she co-hosts.

Though there is no other natural grocery store in Moscow to vie with, the co-op has felt the effects of more widely available organic and natural products in conventional stores, and has tried to adapt to stay competitive.

"We were selling natural foods when it wasn't popular," Eaton says. "But now, you can buy your cereal and soymilk anywhere. …We've had to ask ourselves: 'Why would people shop at Moscow Food Co-op?'"

The shopper-friendly design, extensive deli selection and community events might draw some, but "in this day and age, where you can buy it anywhere, people come here to ask the questions," Eaton says.

The co-op now focuses on building trust with the community, grooming its almost 100-percent organic produce section and providing a bulk section that customers rely on. And though Eaton says naturals retailers need to stick with their core values, flexibility and a willingness to evolve with the times will be the key to success. "We have to be willing to change," she says. "Or we won't be here in another 20 years."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 8/p. 54

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