Starting a food co-op: Year 1
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Starting a food co-op: Year 1

Ever miss a grocery store so much that you try to manifest its replacement for your community by sending a lot of emails? That’s been my last 12 months or so. In the spirit of Mike Perham’s annual posts on Sidekiq, here’s Year 1 for what is now known as the Charles River Food Co-op.

Fall 2021

A local, family owned grocery store for 100 years, Russo’s, announced they were closing on Instagram. The land got bought for $36.5M to a real estate developer to build out labs, and sadly 200 employees were laid off as the business shuttered. The store had been a normal part of my shopping routine since I moved back to Boston in 2018, and for thousands of families a staple for everything from weeknight veggies to holiday specials. Russo’s had an immense selection of produce thanks to their distribution business, an impeccable cheese counter, a bakery, florist, a small nursery, but not much in the way of dry goods or paper products. It wasn’t a store you could get everything at, but what it was…well, it was unlike other chain groceries or farm stands:

A typical display at Russo’s
A typical display at Russo’s

In the checkout lines on my last few visits to the store, I started wondering why there weren’t any community-owned grocery stores nearby. After some quick searching, I learned that there were no open food co-operatives in all of Eastern or Central Massachusetts. Two groups had been organizing for over 9 years each in Maynard and Dorchester - and both broke ground over the summer as Assabet Co-op Market and Dorchester Food Co-op. I had my first call with the Food Co-op Initiative in late August - which gave me some great pointers for how to get started.

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WHY a co-op? Why is this model of building a business not more popular? Here’s my simple take: it’s harder. It’s harder to build consensus and practice democracy in action to get something done. The results of equal and shared ownership are immense though: you build up real power for those who don’t have access to it and along the way provide a ton of great food and jobs to your neighbors. We need more of these in our communities.

A few Facebook groups cropped up as shoppers lamented and rallied around trying to save the store. I quickly found my first co-operator, Tim, and we set off trying to see if anyone at the store wanted to start a co-op, but we didn’t get far with that approach. Tim ran food co-ops in the 70s in Florida and Philadelphia, and has been involved in political organizing for years. He suggested we get some tables at local events and try to see if there was interest in starting a new food co-op. I had registered a domain and built a small site for the “Watertown Food Co-op” so we ran with that name and booked us some spots at two fall-themed fairs in Watertown and Newton.

Tim and I at our first event, Watertown’s Faire on the Square
Tim and I at our first event, Watertown’s Faire on the Square

These initial events proved to be a huge success for us - we got around 500 emails and names as pledges to be members. We clearly were on to something the community needed! Coupled with around 1500 emails from an ActionNetwork.org petition to save the old store, we had built the beginning of a movement.

So, how do we build a store from just emails? Luckily, the Food Co-op Initiative wrote an entire playbook on how to do this:

We got the most basic to-do list for our startup from Greg Brodsky of Start.coop, an incubator for co-ops:

  1. Form steering committee
  2. Get to 1000 people (members $100-200) interested
  3. Get 1 million in commitments at a 3-4% dividend with a matching loan from either CFNE or LEAF
  4. Start building!

Winter 2021

We got into the swing of organizing over the winter months, with our cadence of bi-weekly Zoom calls for our steering committee in full swing. We figured out quite a lot in this period:

  • Built a steering committee of ~10-15 interested and committed folks
  • Decided on a more town-inclusive name: the Charles River Food Co-op
  • Sent out a survey to 2000+ emails to help identify what the co-op’s share price, focus, and other community needs were
  • Became associate members of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, our regional association of startup + open food co-ops
  • Joined a peer group of food co-ops led by JQ Hannah at Food Co-op Initiative (HUGELY helpful!)
  • Tons of learning about co-operatives, governance, equity models, and more
  • First drafts of and subcommittee to decide our mission + vision, now focused around diversity, sustainability, and community

The dive into governance at this stage was most important for us. We settled on becoming a “hybrid” multi-stakeholder co-op - where the consumers and workers of the store are both owners. Our board will eventually have:

  • 4 consumer-owner representatives
  • 4 worker-owner representatives
  • 1 seat that the 8 above can elect to bring a specific skill set or need into the co-op

One regret I have from this phase is not publishing the work we were doing publicly. Luckily, we kept good meeting notes in a running Google Doc - make sure to do this in some fashion so you don’t forget what was discussed!

Spring 2022

We filed our Articles of Organization to become an official corporation in late March. At our first meeting in April we became a real co-op by moving to adopt our by-laws. These were modeled after Dorchester Food Co-op’s by-laws, and we are very grateful for Co-operative Principle 6 which encourages co-ops to cooperate among other co-ops. We were lucky to win a grant to attend the Up & Coming Conference in Madison, WI - a 2 day event dedicated entirely to this space.

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Bureaucracy alert! If you are seeking to form a new co-operative in Massachusetts. You cannot use the online form provided by the Secretary of the Commonwealth to create your corporation. We learned this the hard way, by first using the online form and then needing to request a refund by filling out a PDF manually and emailing it. Next, after DocuSigning and printing out our Articles, I tried to file in-person in downtown Boston. Filing in-person was rejected for a few reasons, the most egregious of which included that my 8 other co-operators did not sign the document physically with a pen. On our third attempt, we faxed it and that worked. Please support any legislation to make this process easier for more co-ops in MA - making it possible to file online in 2022 should not be controversial.

Thanks to the wonderful Jacob Waites, a Watertown based designer, we also came up a new brand and identity during this season:

Our logo - complete with the river inside it
Our logo - complete with the river inside it

I also whipped up a quick Squarespace website and included one of the store renderings that Jacob made, which we have consistently gotten feedback that seeing a store, even if fake, is a huge signal that we are serious about building one.

An important decision made during this season was also to use Mailchimp as our email/newsletter software as well as our CRM. Being able to leave notes and input custom data about each member in a structured fashion is way better than an Excel/Google Sheets approach.

Summer 2022

Next step: build a membership drive. We laid the groundwork for this thanks once again to advice from FCI, and the basic process went like this:

  1. “Prime the pump” email newsletter ~1 week before about the membership drive campaign
  2. “Launch” email newsletter and press release to local publications (some just directly posted this on our behalf!)
  3. “Hey, remember us?” email newsletter ~1 week after “Launch”

We saw an immense response to this campaign - over 200 members bought into the co-op in June alone. We allow members to pay $200 up-front or $25 over 8 months for a share which is good for life. Stripe Checkout made building this out extremely easy, and we saw great uptake with allowing members to cover the credit card processing fee for us as an add-on. We recently hit 400 members and I built this visualization of our growth curve out, which has been tapering a bit but still impressive:

A huge start and momentum!
A huge start and momentum!

Our first committees started forming around this time as well, and it will be interesting to see these evolve through the years:

  • Community/Outreach
  • Marketing
  • Finance/Biz Dev
  • Membership
  • Governance

These are the basic categories of work we have to do as a board. Giving each board member and committed volunteers the power to get things done under their purview without requiring a full vote from the board is a big deal. If we don’t delegate work, the co-op stops moving! I have been trying to instill that early, but I’m still learning this skill too.

We also spent the summer struggling to make meetings work as normal due to vacations and more - a good reminder for next year that we should consider our cadence in advance. Of note, our community + outreach committees invested a ton of time in getting us into a few farmers’ markets and Fall events. Our goal of 500 members by end of October is quickly becoming a realistic and achievable one!

Board members Christina, myself, Jen, and Tim at Waltham Riverfest
in June, with our tent that almost blew away.
Board members Christina, myself, Jen, and Tim at Waltham Riverfest in June, with our tent that almost blew away.

Reflections

As of today, October 10th, the co-op has 422 members. I want to challenge the notion that building a community-owned grocery store needs to take 7-10 years to start up - a fact that I hope predates organizing via Zoom. Thanks so much to everyone who has supported us so far, my wonderful board members and volunteers for putting hours of (unpaid!) work into this effort, and all of those co-operators who have been patient as I have asked a ton of questions about how co-ops work.

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DE&I: If you aware of co-ops, you may have heard about the 7 Co-operative Principles that guide them, but you may not have heard that there’s an 8th Co-operative Principle focused around Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion. I just learned about this last week and I’m in full support. It’s a bit shocking that this is still an open question for the co-op movement, especially given that the national groups are just now starting to recognize the work done by African-Americans in co-ops throughout our country’s history.

I’m going to try and set some personal goals for Year 2 here, let’s see how they go:

  1. Get to 1000 members!
  2. Build out more outreach to the Spanish + Portuguese-speaking communities in our towns to get them involved.
  3. Be a much-needed local example for democracy in action.

Thanks for reading, and co-operating! If you’d like to be a member of the Charles River Food Co-op, join us here.

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