Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op in St. Paul, Minnesota, is one of those legacy co-ops that has evolved, expanded and remained a vital gathering spot amidst the rapidly shifting grocery landscape. It is no coincidence, then, that the co-op’s general manager, Gail Graham, is one of those legacy natural products retailers who has been steadfast in her commitment to natural, organic, local and serving the community while also embracing change and growth.
Started as a single 1,000-square-foot outpost in 1979, Mississippi Market now has three locations, a commissary kitchen and nearly 20,000 member-owners. Graham has steered the ship for the past 19 years, following stints at two other local co-ops. She was brought on board during a tough transitional time for the business, as it had just opened a second location in a challenging environment. But with a firm dedication to Mississippi Market’s mission and meeting the community’s ever-changing needs, Graham and her team have helped the nearly 40-year-old co-op thrive.
You’ve been in the natural foods industry for decades. What inspires you to do this work?
Gail Graham: I just get really excited about food. I think great food makes an important difference in our lives. It brings great joy, and I’ve always appreciated working in an environment that allows me to share that joy with others. I’ve been in the industry since 1977 and worked in co-ops since 1979, and over the years we have worked hard to make a difference in our community and create a better world.
What does your role of general manager entail?
GG: I oversee all three locations and our commissary kitchen. I always think of the GM role as that of an orchestra conductor. My job is to bring together different players—those doing the hard work—to make sure we are doing our best work. I set the tempo, articulate the directions we want to go, make sure tasks are followed through on and redirect as necessary.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
GG: I think it’s really a gift to be able to help people grow and develop. It’s great when we can help develop employees and then find new places within the co-op where they can use their skills, thrive and continue to grow. We really aim to create a climate where everyone is helping us succeed at the same time that we are helping them succeed—a mutual success story.
How has Mississippi Market evolved and changed in your 19 years?
GG: Our entire industry has changed so dramatically, and NFM has always been a great resource to help us keep up with what is going on around the country. Like other businesses, we have emphasized the foodservice element more and more over the years. Great produce has always been a strength of our store and is something consumers continue to look for.
The co-op prioritizes local, but is it tough to find enough local produce and other products given Minnesota’s short growing season?
GG: There is certainly plenty of dairy, cheese and meat available all year long, but fresh produce, not so much. This isn’t like the Sacramento Valley, where people grow it year-round. But in season, we bring in as much locally grown produce as possible and have a good network of local growers to choose from. Some have worked with us for decades and grown up along with us, expanding their operations to meet our needs and those of other stores. Actually, since we can sell only so much broccoli or so much cheese, the bigger challenge is bringing in all the local growers we want to.
How does Mississippi Market work to increase access to healthy food?
GG: We know our food costs more, but you get what you pay for. When you sell products that are not only certified organic but also from local growers who have higher costs—and when you’re working to be a good employer and pay a living wage—those things make a certain price structure necessary. That said, we always try to ensure that our prices are reasonable and competitive. And to make our food more accessible, we have the Limited Income Membership Entry (LIME) program, which lets people become members at a reduced rate and, if they meet criteria such as WIC or SNAP, get a 10 percent discount on every purchase. Additionally, we do a lot of education to better serve our communities, including free monthly “Shopping the Co-op on a Budget” classes, which help people understand how to shop our deals, how to buy bulk and so on.
How does the co-op interact with the community outside the aisles?
GG: We work hard to be a good partner with nonprofits in the community, from taking donations at the register to sponsoring local events. We joined with other local co-ops to start a nonprofit, Midwest Food Connection, which has teachers go into classrooms to teach kids about food at no cost to the schools. It’s a great way to reach out to new, young eaters. And at our East Seventh store, we launched a community dinner program where we offer a $3 dinner once a month. One night we served pulled pork and a vegetarian jackfruit option with coleslaw; another time we had baked potatoes with chili. We have live music and make an event of it, and it’s been really popular and fun. These events bring people into the store who might not normally come.
You also mentioned that the co-op works to create a better world. How so?
GG: Certainly, it’s partly through the very nature of the food we sell. In the natural products industry, we have been leaders in changing the way people think about food and shaping their expectations around food. We’ve seen the conventional food industry change dramatically as people have brought these expectations to the marketplace. And then, by having created these changes in the food industry, more people understand the connection between health and food.
What keeps customers loyal to Mississippi Market despite their many other retail options?
GG: People still yearn for a sense of connection and community, and many shoppers truly value the experience of going into a store, talking to the staff and tasting products. So, it is really important that we continue to succeed in providing that kind of experience. All three stores have both indoor and outdoor seating to give people community gathering spaces, and we work hard to educate and inspire the community around food and food issues. When you have values that people resonate with, it creates connection and an interest in supporting you. On top of that, people want convenience, so we try to make the customer experience as painless as possible. Our stores are all 7,000 to 10,000 square feet so they are easy to navigate and get in and out of.
Will co-ops continue to play an important role in the future?
GG: I think co-ops like ours, along with other independent natural products stores across the country, continue to be where innovation is taking place in our industry. We are all working to make sure that we’re not only talking about our values and educating around them but also employing them in the work we do within our vendor and geographical communities. It is an interesting time to be in grocery, whether you’re in natural products or not, but I think there will continue to be a place for the work we do.