It’s time for an update on the Charles River Food Co-op, one year after the first. Just what is a food co-op, you ask? Well, it’s not a CSA/farm share, or a Farmers’ Market. We were lucky to be covered by Edible Boston in May and they produced this wonderful infographic explaining what a food co-op is:
I can’t wait to blow this up so it’s poster or wall sized in the store when we get there. Speaking of, where are we in those early stages of planning? Here’s a timeline view of where we are based on the Food Co-op Initiative’s 4 stage model:
First up, a goal update. Last year, I set the following goals:
- Get to 1000 members!
- Build out more outreach to the Spanish + Portuguese-speaking communities in our towns to get them involved.
- Be a much-needed local example for democracy in action.
Here’s a quick status report on those:
- We’re at 750 members.
- No real progress here outside of experimenting with website translation.
- Our first election is coming up this Fall!
Overall I think this was a year of learning - and after pushing hard on this for ~2 years, I had to set some personal boundaries with how I spent my time on this project. More on that as I break down each season and what we got done…
Our big community events tend to happen in the Fall here, with a lot of towns holding their harvest/Fall fairs. To that end we produced a ton of swag, including:
- Car Magnets
- Buttons, so many buttons!
I was lucky to be awarded a scholarship to attend a national co-op conference in DC, the 2022 Co-operative IMPACT Conference, and learn from other co-operative leaders (and scholars). This was very much an “insider” event for the co-op industry, and I learned it’s real tough to bring groups together across industries and make it successful. Despite some bumps in the programming that weren’t super relevant to our tiny food co-op, I was really proud to see the team at NBCA CLUSA take some direct feedback about the program and incorporate that into this year’s class.
We made some big community pushes during the Fall, including bringing the Russo family into a board meeting to present our progress, and we even had a Public Service Announcement produced thanks to the wonderful crew at Watertown Cable Access News:
We also started our financial feasibility study with the experts at Columinate. Columinate is a group of consultants that help out food co-ops get started, and of course, is a co-op itself. Don Moffitt and Sarah Lebherz, who together have decades of experience on the finance side of the grocery industry, are helping us build a financial model for our co-op to help not just to opening day - but also for the years beyond.
Winter was another slower month overall, but we hit 500 members in early November, and $100K in the bank. We need at least 1000 members to open the store - since there’s no “MVP” for a physical store, members are how we prove the co-op has enough momentum in the community to support the business.
Even with 1000 members with our $200 equity share, that’s sadly not enough to make our store a reality. Co-ops tend to have different “capital stacks” which look pretty different than most businesses. Here’s a few examples from other co-ops opening in Massachusetts this year, Assabet Co-op Market and Dorchester Food Co-op:
The ultimate constraint of co-ops is that we can’t trade equity for capital, which leads to creative fundraising like what we see above. How do food co-ops use that cash to build the store? Most of it goes towards construction efforts (70-80% usually), and the rest goes towards admin of the co-op along with salary for the GM before the doors open.
We also managed to get a quick feature in the Boston Globe about our effort, and I’m glad to finally be a “force”:
Some other quick updates from this season that made a difference:
- Secured D&O insurance to help protect our directors from any legal issues
- Held an auction for membership with the Watertown Co-operative Preschool. Principle 6 in action!
- Built a “Gift a Membership” purchase flow…but only had one share purchased this way. (More soon, we hope!)
- Approved money for a market study to help us nail down real data about how much money the store could make in our area
- Sent thank you notes to everyone on the board for their effort over the year.
Spring this year felt like we spun our wheels on a few fronts. When you’re leading an all-volunteer effort, burnout can happen. I set a boundary that I didn’t want to do as many in-person events as we ramped up planning for farmers’ market season, as our return on the time invested for those markets (usually, 5-6 hours for each) was pretty low (under 5 members signed up). Usually people don’t go to a farmers’ market expecting to drop $200 on something that isn’t food. Once we get further along in our project and we have a site picked out, I think it’ll make more sense to focus on regular in-person community events. Our wonderful community committee did pull off a few events during this season, and in the Fall too.
The biggest event for the co-op over the Spring was holding an open house over Zoom. We engaged a real wide group of folks who wanted to hear about the co-op’s progress, and this has led to our next crop of organizers to make this project a reality. I think we need to hold these once a quarter - the energy coming out of this and hearing people step up is not just a relief, but necessary. Here’s what we presented, if you’d like to watch!
To cap Spring off, our interview with Edible Boston was published which covers the rise of new food co-ops here in Boston. I’m so grateful that we have examples of other communities making this a reality close to us. It’s clear that more neighborhoods, towns, and cities need these - I can’t wait to help out the next group who wants to organize one.
Summer felt like a breakthrough month for the co-op, and a big reset in our momentum. We hit 700 members, and brought our new volunteers from Open House into the fold. We formed two new committees out of all the interest, focused around Marketing and Finance / Business Development. Both of these committees are meeting every other week, on the off week from our board meetings. It’s been a huge increase in our overall output - and feels like the co-op is moving forward at a pace we haven’t seen before.
Our Marketing committee made some big strides over the summer, including:
- Running social media campaigns on Facebook + Instagram which resulted in dozens of new members
- Publishing our newsletter on a monthly cadence
- Building a calendar for marketing efforts throughout the year (and making great new visuals like the one below!)
Our Finance / Biz Dev committee pushed forward on a few different projects:
- Building a budget for the co-op for our 2023—2024 Fiscal Year
- Handling + helping submit our 2023 filings with the Commonwealth
- Vetting out some exciting ideas, such as cheese delivery or allowing smaller vendors to have booths in our future store
- Authoring an RFP for our Market Study, which we’ve gotten a few compliments on:
We wrapped up the Summer figuring out our events planning for Fall, and starting to get our first elections planned. Finally, in response to a few board members officially stepping away during this season, we documented our expectations and onboarding for new board members.
Goals for Year 3
I’m now in my third year of trying to manifest a food store from emails, and I’m still excited to be learning about my community, a new industry, and how to lead a co-operative effort. It has its ups and downs: but I firmly believe that nothing worth doing is easy.
Setting 3 goals again for 2023-2024:
- Train up our new board members after our election this Fall
- Bring in “Solidarity Shares” to enable lower-income folks to join the co-op for at a more affordable entry point
- Move onto Stage 2B: Planning!
Thanks for reading - and a huge thanks to everyone who is helping organize this effort with me. I couldn’t do this alone, and that’s the point of building a co-operative! If you’d like to be a member of the Charles River Food Co-op, join us here. Also if you’re thinking of starting one of these yourself - let’s co-operate.