Anyone who has worked in a grocery store in the past two years has seen and been through a lot. Among that cohort, co-op general managers have faced a unique set of challenges. GMs are entrusted with overseeing the operations of a community-owned asset. They are planners by nature who were suddenly forced to live without reliable sales data, product availability or stable staffing. Grocery stores were transformed from a weekly chore and community meet-up location to an essential business that was also charged with community safety. Nevertheless, they wake up each day, open the doors of the store, and figure out a way to operate no matter what is thrown their way.
The Importance of Co-op Culture
Jan Rasikas, the GM of Viroqua Food Co-op in Wisconsin experienced the thrown part quite literally.
“I told a man he had to wear a mask, and he threw a tomato at me,” said Rasikas who was thankfully able to laugh about the experience.
Viroqua Food Co-op has experienced issues with staffing shortages, sourcing products, packaging disruptions, price hikes, wage increases, and waiting longer for repairs throughout 2021. Jan credits an existing store culture with helping to navigate many of these challenges.
“Even with many new employees, there is still a camaraderie of support and kindness at the co-op. The respectful workplace that has taken many years to foster has carried us through the weirdness of pandemic-related issues. This has sustained us in so many ways.”
Navigating Staffing Shortages
Staffing shortages have pressed some management or administrative staff into atypical roles at many co-ops. The GM of Buffalo’s Lexington Cooperative Market, Tim Bartlett has experienced it firsthand.
“We’ve had a marketing manager position open since January 2020 and can’t find the right person. I’m trying to wear the marketing manager hat, but the longer it drags on, the more it weighs on me.”
Sean Doyle, the GM of Seward Co-op in Minnesota is managing through a positional whack-a-mole familiar to many in the business right now. His Store Manager is managing the Grocery Department, which means the Senior HR and Operations Manager is stepping more into day-to-day store management. Seward has also been unable to fill a Deli Manager position, so the Fresh Merchandising Coordinator is overseeing the Deli. Each move plugs an immediate hole, only to leave another part of the store with less oversight. Doyle worries, for example, that a slip in grocery margin during the most recent quarter could be due to price updates happening slower than they typically would.
Bartlett puts it bluntly: “Don’t try to do it all yourself. You’ll burn out. If someone can remind me of that periodically, I’d appreciate it.”
Supply chain and staffing issues are of course simply layered on top of the lingering presence of Covid-19 transmission in communities throughout the country. Bartlett describes holding the line by refusing entry to unmasked customers, even over fierce objections. Seward installed heated structures outside for customers to wait while enforcing limited store entry, but Doyle said he even received complaints about those enclosures from Covid-cautious shoppers.
“You can’t please everyone.”
Reflecting and Revaluating
General Managers and Boards across the country have also been working to center anti-racism work and bring marginalized voices to the forefront. Rasikas said that at Viroqua they want diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to be a perpetual and visible piece of daily operations, the annual business plan and staff training.
For Doyle and the staff of Seward these issues have hit very close to home. One of their two locations is just blocks from where George Floyd was murdered by former police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020. That incident began with a business calling the police about a forged $20 bill and ended in tragedy. Seward amended staff training and their practices for calling police, limiting their use to incidents where there was risk of bodily harm. It’s proven challenging over the past year to avoid calling police for day-to-day incidents without adding additional stress to staff or customers. The store eventually landed on hiring a non-uniformed, non-armed security officer from a company Doyle vetted for their approach to inclusion.
Despite overlapping and intersecting crises, GMs are planning for growth in 2022 and reflecting on what lessons they can take from the last twelve months. Rasikas isn’t limiting her ambition for issues to tackle at Viroqua.
“Reinvigorating our plan to reduce plastic in the store will be more challenging than ever! Maintaining our reputation for great service with staffing shortages and wage increases. It’s important to get wages up, but it might impact how long people wait or how many staff are available for questions.”
Accepting Help from Others
Bartlett pointed out the success of Nation Cooperative Grocers’ Core Sets program which helped to successfully complete merchandising and sales data work. He remarked the program gives a window into how powerful we can be if we align our work with other co-ops. He also took a bird’s eye view of the coming year.
“A grocery store has a lot of power in our community. We create access to good foods. We provide good jobs. We are an important marketplace for our local producers. If we take care of our customers, staff, farmers & producers, we will create business success, co-op success, and make our communities stronger.”
Doyle discussed how invaluable federal business assistance programs like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Employee Retention Credit (ERC) have been. They’ve allowed Seward to weather sales declines, pay staff an increased hourly hazard pay rate, and still come out cash neutral.
“Don’t be afraid to take subsidy, if you are a qualifying business for a federal subsidy, don’t be afraid to use it. There may be coops that have not gone for ERC that can get it.”
Doyle’s message to GMs is to draw on their perspective and passion.
“It’s been a discouraging couple of years, but the advice I’d give to folks is to try to rediscover what lit your fire to begin with to do this work, and look for the threads that are still there that burn the way they did at the start.”
Rasikas said it’s the cooperative business structure itself that makes it all worth it.
“Co-op work is both a challenge and a reward. To me, the co-op model seems way out ahead for how businesses can behave well in their communities for the benefit of everyone. Feels good to do this work.”
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