What began as a bulk buying club back in 1973 has blossomed into a full-service downtown supermarket, a vital and bustling community hub, and the top-selling single co-op in the country. City Market Onion River Co-op in Burlington, Vermont, offers a wide array of natural, organic and local products alongside conventional choices.
With nearly 12,000 members and a second location opening mid-November, the co-op is fiercely committed to supporting the community’s health and enhancing local food systems. One of the dedicated, dynamic leaders who has nurtured City Market’s success is Lynn Ellen Schimoler, director of purchasing and merchandising. Here, Schimoler discusses the co-op’s impact and why she’s thrilled to be part of it.
What sparked your interest in natural foods?
Lynn Ellen Schimoler: My mom owned a health food store in New Hampshire, so I grew up eating mindfully. My parents also owned some land and were great stewards of it. My mother was a forward thinker so we had chia seeds in our morning cornmeal and I learned how to make soymilk at a very young age. As you can imagine, seeing these foods and ideas come back around so many years later is very interesting.
How did you become involved with City Market Onion River Co-op?
LES: After taking some time off from college and working in retail in California, I came back East to finish school and then managed an independent natural foods store for many years. I started at the co-op as produce manager in 2003. I was very curious about cooperative economics and what that really meant. Co-ops are a different space from independents but no different in terms of the lifestyle piece. Eventually I became store manager, and now that we are expanding, my role is director of purchasing and merchandising.
What does your current role entail?
LES: My focus is product procurement, pricing strategy, and deepening and strengthening relationships with supply chains, particularly with all the folks we work with locally. One of our goals is to support local producers and strengthen the local Vermont food economy. My role in-store is very focused on operations and engagement with customers and co-op members. I’m also the big-picture merchandiser and category management strategist. Going to farmers markets is a very important piece of my work because even when I’m out shopping for myself, I’m always learning and tasting what is grown here.
How does the co-op support local producers?
LES: As much as we can and whenever we are able, we procure local items. Of our $41 million in total sales [as of April] this fiscal year, 39 percent has been local products. So our website has a section called Local Food Gaps. This is a partial list of products that we’re looking for from our community. For instance, right now we’re looking for goat’s milk, flour tortillas and specific grains like barley and blue cornmeal. This list prevents people from pitching their product in a saturated category like local sauces, jams or greeting cards and ending up disappointed. But also, in terms of intentionally growing the food system, this lets us plant ideas in the minds of farmers who may have the infrastructure to build for these specific product needs.
Besides championing local, what is City Market best known for?
LES: We are definitely known for our community initiatives but also our selection. We offer local and organic as well as conventional products. We give people access to healthful choices—but we also give them a choice. There really is something here for everyone.
How does the co-op enrich the greater community?
LES: One of the really cool pieces of the co-op’s community engagement and mission is we donate to local nonprofits. Last year we gave more than $108,000 to a county food shelf. With our Rally for Change program, we ask shoppers at the register if they’d like to round up to the nearest dollar to donate to local organizations. Every month, all the spare change goes to three different nonprofits. In April, we donated 40 percent of it to Vermont Food Bank, 10 percent to Center City Little League and 50 percent to the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf.
You have a very comprehensive staff training program—why is this key?
LES: Well, employee development and training are very important to our business because we want to retain staff—which we do; we have many long-term employees. But we also want their work environment to feel dynamic and like it’s someplace they can really learn. We seek opportunities to promote from within, but if people do leave us, we want them to take knowledge with them.
What’s the best part of the work you do?
LES: What I find really incredible about working at a co-op, besides providing all this great food for our guests, is that our goal as an organization is to make sure that area residents are enjoying an enhanced quality of life and that people have pride in ownership. I think that’s cool. Co-ops really lead in connecting the community to producers and farmers and connecting that idea of where food comes from. Food is a critical part of who we are—it is very personal. It’s very exciting that all the eaters out there are demanding fresh, quality food and that local matters, that values matter. I love that co-ops can connect with consumers’ personal values.