There are plenty of places in Brooklyn selling fancy food. From organic ramps to house-cured sopressatta, we’ve got special occasion fare handled. But what if you want to eat healthy, sustainably raised food on a budget?
A number of Brooklynites have decided that food co-ops are the answer.
Following in the footsteps of the much lauded/loathed/loved Park Slope Food Co-op, community-minded eaters around the borough are hard at work forming co-ops and working to make their dreams of low-cost, locally grown produce a reality. The Greene Hill Food Co-op in Clinton Hill, the Bay Ridge Food Co-op and the Bushwick Food Co-op are all in their fledgling states, hoping to open storefronts in the near future.
One huge challenge for co-ops trying to get off the ground is funding. While the idea of having a co-op in your neighborhood may be appealing, prospective members often balk at ponying up cash for a store that doesn’t yet exist. “People say, ‘Okay, that’s great, but we need food,'” says Rachel Devlin, one of the founders of the Bushwick Co-op. Rather than raising money through investors and loans, co-ops raise their opening capital through memberships (they range from $50-$200), fundraisers and grants. In a co-op each member owns a piece of the organization, in those $50 and $200 chunks. When a member leaves, they get their investment back. This structure makes it nearly impossible to get small business loans, since in theory, members could all quit at any time, and demand all of the money behind the business back.
The Green Hill Co-op, which recently signed a lease on Putnam Avenue, currently has 115 members and needs to raise the $80,000 they estimate it will take them to open their doors for business through memberships and fundraising events. They’re holding a work party, membership drive and potluck this Sunday in hopes of doubling their current membership. Although they have a year-long, low-rent grace period, ($2,500 a month or just $10/sq. ft.) they already have an overhead just by having a space. “We’re paying insurance, lighting and heating,” says Anna Muessig, one of the outreach co-chairs of Greene Hill.
The notion of paying for something that’s still just an idea can be a hard sell. In Bay Ridge, the co-op founders are about a third of the way to their 1,000-member goal, at which point they will pursue a lease. In the two years they’ve been active they’ve started a CSA, and received a grant for $5,000 from the Brooklyn Community Foundation. The Bushwick Co-op has a bi-weekly buying club in place, with 75 members and an email list of more than 700. What they all need is more members–meaning more capital.
Co-ops function in a variety of ways; in some, like the Park Slope Food Co-op, every member has to fulfill a monthly work requirement (2.75 hours) and the general public is not allowed to shop in the store. Others, like the Flatbush Food Co-op, use a tiered system where the public can purchase goods at market price, while members receive a discount at the register, with working members getting a deeper discount. Greene Hill and Bay Ridge have decided to adopt the Park Slope, all-members-are-working-members model. The Bushwick Co-op is in the process of asking their community to vote on which model to use.
“We looked around to find the most effective system for getting food as affordably as possible,” says David Marangio, founding member of the Bay Ridge Co-op. “It has to make business sense, we have to keep the lights on.” Because the Park Slope Co-op relies exclusively on members’ work, they’re able to maintain a roughly 20 percent mark-up on grocery items, compared to an average 100-150 percent mark-up at conventional grocery stores. Park Slope is currently supporting the efforts of all three fledgling co-ops by allowing members to fulfill their work requirements at the start-ups. Interest in co-ops has grown so much recently that Park Slope, which has roughly 15,500 members, is currently limiting its orientations to 70 people a week to keep its membership rolls in check.
Creating an inclusive community is a primary goal for each of the co-ops. They are all planning on offering lower priced memberships for low-income members, and have created payment systems that stretch the initial investment out over time to lower the financial barrier. They’re also working to break down other barriers. In Bay Ridge, the co-op has invested time and energy into outreach, letting the large senior citizen community know that they won’t have to unload boxes to meet their work requirement and finding translators to explain the co-op concept in Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and Russian. “Speaking to someone in their primary language is a good place to start,” says Marangio.
While Bay Ridge and Greene Hill will both insist that all members work, they are devising ways to communicate that policy in a more diplomatic way than the famously brusque Park Slope Co-op. “We’re extremely aware of that feeling and we don’t want to duplicate it in our store,” says Muessig. Greene Hill is planning bring-a-friend-shopping, and community days so that non-members can experience the co-op and feel invited in. Bay Ridge plans to offer free trial memberships for anyone who comes in looking to shop, not knowing it’s a co-op. “We’re not going to send anyone down the road,” says Marangio.
Greene Hill will launch a buying club in the next month as phase I of their development, and the Bushwick Buying Club is in full swing, with biweekly ordering and pickups (some foods require a large minimum order, so they frequently have an overflow of items like coffee, cheese, potatoes and greens that anyone can buy at great prices). All of the fledgling co-ops need members willing to invest and then wait. “We’re totally confident we can have a robust buying club,” says Muessig at Greene Hill. “And then in May–cross your fingers, cross your toes–we’ll start building out the store.”
We’ve noticed that all co-ops smell the same when you walk inside, whether in Brooklyn, Vermont or Oregon, and we polled co-op organizers for their theories on the origin of this smell. Read their answers on our blog.
Correction: Originally we stated that the Park Slope Food Coop had more than 19,000 members and was not taking new members because of difficulty keeping enough stock, and because they don’t have enough work to go around. The information above reflects their actual numbers and policy.