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Wasatch Co-op's Catch-22

More members needed to make progress


Wasatch Co-op Board Members - NIKI CHAN

Ben Gaddis’ piece of scratch paper has a list inked onto it: apples, lamb, cumin, potatoes, a few odd household items. In Gaddis’ ideal world, he wouldn’t be taking his list to a national-chain grocery, but to a store he jointly owns with community members. And Gaddis hopes that might become reality within the next year.

Gaddis is board chairman of the Wasatch Cooperative Market, which will be Utah’s first community-owned, full-service grocery store—think of a community-owned-and-operated Whole Foods. Hundreds of co-ops already exist around the country. “It’s an anomaly that there isn’t one here,” Gaddis says.

Wasatch Co-op has been in the works for 2 1/2 years, with potentially a while yet to go before opening its doors. The co-op currently has about 100 member-owners, who each paid a one-time fee of $300 to join; 200 more members are needed to fund a necessary feasibility study. At least 1,200 members are needed for the co-op to open, and attracting additional member-owners presents inherent difficulties, Gaddis says.

Wasatch Co-op started with an informal gathering of about 20 people in April 2009; a steering committee was formed shortly after. The first public meeting was held in May 2009, and roughly 50 members have joined since, says Alison Einerson, member of the board of directors, which is made up entirely of unpaid volunteers.

From an outsider’s perspective, it might seem like there’s been little progress, but Einerson says, “It’s just not sexy or engaging; it’s nuts and bolts sort of things.”

One of those nuts was a statistical demographic analysis, done by Debbie Suassuna, a consultant with Cooperative Development Services, who Gaddis says is the “go-to” person for these studies around the country. “The result of that said, basically, that we would be successful, given factors like the city’s population, education, income, buying habits, healthy lifestyles, etc.,” Einerson says. The analysis also predicted the co-op would be successful at about 10,000 square feet, with thousands of member-owners and shoppers needed to sustain the operation.

Einerson says the Wasatch Co-op’s next step is conducting a feasibility study, which will help the co-op select a locale, most likely in Salt Lake City proper.

“Furthermore, we need this [study] so we can say, ‘Look, we’re not just a bunch of hippies getting together selling almonds. We have national data and people backing us up,’ ” she says.

To raise the funds for the study, though, the co-op needs to increase the number of member-owners to at least 200. To help with the membership drive, the co-op hired its first employee in December, Krista Bowers, as its cooperative development coordinator.

Bowers says obtaining members is a catch-22 because many people want to know where the store will be, but the co-op won’t know until the feasibility study is done. “Our other main challenge is the education factor, and for people to trust us and to see the vision, which is extremely hard because there’s never been a co-op here,” Bowers says. “Most of the people that have invested already have lived elsewhere where they’ve shopped at a co-op.”

Gaddis, an environmental consultant, and his wife, Erica, are both Utah natives but connected to the co-op vision while living in Burlington, Vt., where they were member-owners at City Market/Onion River Co-op. “When we moved back, we thought surely there had to be a co-op market. But, no. A couple years went by, and it just sort of clicked that we needed to do this,” Gaddis says.

Gaddis, Bowers and Einerson agree on how co-ops benefit communities: They retain money locally. Member-owners benefit by having a vote in how the store is operated and what products are sold; they also receive a yearly dividend and occasional in-store discounts. According to the International Co-operative Alliance, seven principles guide a co-op’s practice: democratic member control; voluntary and open membership; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and cooperatives’ concern for community.

There are about 325 retail food co-ops and roughly 200 in development in the United States, according to the Food Co-op Initiative, a national nonprofit that offers support to communities looking to start new co-ops. Like most of those, Wasatch Co-op would be a full-service, for-profit business, open all week. There are currently other “co-ops” in the area, but none are legally structured as true co-ops. The Utah Co-op is a volunteer-run nonprofit started by Mercedes Zel-Pappas, where shoppers can request items but do not benefit in the same way as member-owners of a co-op. The Community Food Co-op, run by Crossroads Urban Center, is more or less a buy-in club catering to low-income Utahns and is open only on Mondays.

“Salt Lake City is a place that needs a co-op. It’s the whole economic model and the empowerment that comes with a community owning its own business,” says Stuart Reid, executive director of the Food Co-op Initiative and the main adviser to the Wasatch Co-op. “What co-ops are doing are grass-roots efforts to building up fairly sophisticated businesses that are started without the benefit of a corporate treasury. It takes a long time to build equity a couple bucks at a time,” Reid says.

But for some member-owners, like Nate Stireman, who joined over a year ago, some tangible benefits now would be nice. “I think it would really benefit existing members to have some kind of resource to purchase food in bulk, like being a member of a buy-in club,” he says. He suggests this could engage existing members while attracting new ones. Current member-owners do receive discounts at participating merchants such as Brewvies, Pago, Squatters and Cali's Natural Foods.

“I’m definitely wondering when the hell this is going to happen. Is it going to happen? And I think they might be ambitious with their timeline; I don’t think they’ll open doors when they say,” Stireman says.
Einerson says it would be ideal to open during 2012, as it’s the United Nations-decreed Year of the Co-op, but it might be more feasible to open in early 2013.

“The typical development process—from our research and from our consultant—is about three to five years,” Einerson says.

Stireman adds that he believes in the co-op ideology and is more anticipatory for the community-wide benefits than for his own sake. “I feel happy about buying into what they’re doing—even if it requires waiting—without benefiting personally, financially or otherwise, because, for me, it’s the big picture of our local food system and changing the current paradigm that’s important.” 

Twitter: @AustenDiamond