Why Members Matter
By Bob Gibson
The TPSS Food Co-op has been serving our community for more than 40 years, beginning in our original small store in Silver Spring, and over the past 25, at our current location on Ethan Allen Avenue in Takoma Park.
In the early years, the co-op all but cornered the market on the sale of “natural foods” and business was run by the members (literally, from stocking shelves to making purchasing decisions). Members who were part of those early years still wax nostalgic about the ‘hands on’ experience.
Once in the much bigger space at Takoma Junction, the nature of the co-op’s business practices evolved. Professional staff gradually took over the day-to-day operations that were once handled by volunteer members.
TPSS Food Co-op has thrived as it has matured. Our financial health is in the top tier of the more than 200 food co-ops in the U.S. Guided by General Manager Mike Houston, our staff runs an efficient grocery that offers a unique selection of quality foods at price points for every budget. In a survey conducted earlier this year, members provided the Board of Representatives with glowing feedback on satisfaction with their co-op.
So, have the member-owners taken a back seat now that we have a more ‘conventional’ approach to how our store is managed?
Not at all. The role and importance of members has evolved, right alongside the changes in the grocery business.
Members are directly involved in the business of the co-op through the Board of Representatives they elect each year. Our board oversees the store operations by setting out member expectations for our business through policies to be followed by the general manager. The Board holds ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the investments made by our 11,000 members. Today, organic foods are big business and corporate giants as varied as WalMart and Whole Foods are leading retailers of what is labeled as organic food. Our staff, our Board and all our members have roles to play in keeping our business strong in this competitive environment.
With this in mind, it was instructive – and refreshing – for me to visit two new co-ops in the mid-Atlantic area this year – the Fredericksburg Food Co-op in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and the South Philly Food Co-op in Philadelphia.
Fredericksburg and South Philly stories provide insights into the continued relevance of the co-op business model. A co-op is a grassroots, democratic exercise that can succeed in any setting, from small towns to suburbs to inner cities. It also takes incredible persistence and belief as start-up funding from conventional lenders is hard to come by.
South Philly opened its doors in 2020, after a ten-year organizing and fund-raising effort led by its members. It occupies a tiny storefront on a narrow street in a densely populated neighborhood with scant parking, where deliveries are made through the front door. Inside, it is a well-lit, colorful and welcoming space, and includes an improbable sunken herb garden and plant nursery outside the back door. It features local producers and hosts community events and activities, in the store and around the city. Philadelphia has many grocery options, but South Philly is thriving because it offers a community connection and values-based business not found at corporate competitors.
The small city of Fredericksburg is not a food desert, but the relative lack of natural food options inspired a small group of residents to organize a co-op. As with South Philly, it took years of signing up people to achieve the critical mass required to actually open a store. A founding board member says, “We were selling a dream,” when it came to convincing new members to loan money for a business that didn’t yet exist.
Located in a shopping center on the edge of downtown, the Fredericksburg co-op has plenty of parking. In a community with fewer options than a Philadelphia or Takoma Park, the co-op board went against the advice of grocery consultants and made room for a full-service café and a community gathering space. The spacious store features huge photos of the farmers and other local producers that help supply the inventory. Now, two years after opening, their only regret is that they didn’t make that space even bigger.
At our co-op, we’re about to embark on inspiring change and growth. Next year, our current store will undergo a substantial renovation. We have the reserves in hand, supplemented by a grant from the state of Maryland, to cover the renovation costs. An even bigger project to follow is a serious exploration of expansion to a second store. If we take that step, we will again be turning to our members, for both financial help in the form of loans, as well as for the process of strategic visioning. Members are crucial to ensuring that we grow in ways that help us better meet our mission and best reflect the values of our community.