Restoring Trust and Vibrancy in a Co-op Community

Restoring Trust and Vibrancy in a Co-op Community

Columinate | 01-09-2019

Central Co-op
Seattle, WA

Year founded: 1978
Number of members: 14,200
Consumer member investment: $100
Worker member investment: $6,340 (12 years)
Number of employees: 120
Locations: Seattle and Tacoma (opening date late spring TBD)

When the Central Co-op in Seattle, Wash. proposed a vote to merge with the Tacoma Food Co-op in 2015, the memberships of both co-ops overwhelmingly approved it. Both communities saw win-win opportunities to both expand the co-op market and bring the benefits of operational expertise and volume pricing to the smaller Tacoma location. Due to its size and location, the Tacoma co-op had struggled with its price image, product selection and visibility.

However, while the two stores worked to merge their operations, a serious problem emerged. The lease for the Tacoma location was up for renewal and the co-op could not reach a satisfactory agreement with the property’s landlord. When negotiations ended, the landlord delivered an ultimatum: be out in two weeks. The co-op’s leadership felt like it had no choice but to close the Tacoma location.

Susanna Schultz, the co-op’s marketing director, said, “The co-op’s leadership decided it would be best to start fresh with a store that could meet the members’ needs better and have a more sustainable operation.” But when it happened, some Tacoma members felt like the merger represented nothing more than a big loss for their community—and publicly expressed their anger and disapproval in the media. “There was distrust from the community about what the co-op was going to do next.”

The co-op had work to do to restore the community’s trust. First and foremost, they needed to demonstrate that they’d keep their word regarding securing a new location. They’ve held focus groups and meals around the round table. “We wanted to create opportunities for members to come and talk and share their feedback. That was the big thing, people wanted to see us keep our promise. And we did. That’s been really important.”

You could say the proof is in the pudding. “Once we announced our new location in Tacoma people got super excited.” They’ve continued with member engagement throughout. They’ve done a lot of door-knocking about the co-op and hosting events in a tent in the new location’s parking lot. “We’ve made it a big open house for everyone to come share their ideas about the co-op, and we’ve shared our plans regarding the store layout, information about jobs, and the product line. It’s been a fun thing.” Hundreds of people have shown up to these events, and the excitement is palpable. Soon the co-op will be able to offer tours of the store’s progress to date, with plans to open in the late spring of this year. The impression some people have about the co-op has changed from disapproval to enthusiasm.

From Schultz’s perspective, creating ways for members and co-op leaders to have a mutual understanding has been key to that change. “Knowing what members think is important. It’s also important that members understand the co-op’s business and how values show up at the co-op. Nothing substitutes for having those conversations, and we have benefited from having leadership willing to invest the necessary staff time and money in making those possible.”

Throughout the process, Schultz thought a lot about the applied co-op principles and values, especially cooperation among co-ops and the value of transparency. “We have the opportunity to learn from each other, and it’s a strength we have as co-ops.”

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