Growing with Community

Central Co-op’s commitment to small producers and ethical sourcing makes it more than your average grocery store.

STORY BY MARGOT KAHNAfter the birth of her daughter and the death of her mother, Kristi Brown was forced to shut down her successful catering business, and as she was thinking about her next move, people kept asking about her legendary hummus.

“I’m really big on signs,” Brown laughs, “and after 30 or so people totally randomly all said, ‘That stuff you make is so good, you should put it in a store,’ I was like OK. So I made some hummus, put it in a container, put a label on it, and went to the stores.”

Central Co-op was one of Brown’s first stops, knowing it was a place where people look for healthy food and are not afraid to try something new. It was a natural fit for her unique, Seattle-made product: hummus made from black-eyed peas, in a Southern Cajun flavor and an East African berbere-chili. Central Co-op put That Brown Girl Cooks! hummus on its shelves in 2012 and, since then, Brown’s business has boomed. She’s now in 13 stores, including Whole Foods and PCC, and she distributes with a local CSA. “Still,” she says, “Central Co-op outsells everybody. The Co-op was like my open door to success.”

Which is not a small story. “Wherever I go in the food world,” Brown says, “I’m usually the only one who looks like me. It’s a big deal being a black woman in Seattle making food. This market is really competitive, and getting through it is a lot if you don’t have the background.” But the Co-op, she says, “has been so supportive. They’ve just grown with me.”

It’s stories like these that set Central Co-op apart from its neighbors. QFC, Safeway, and Trader Joe’s are all within just a one-mile radius, and Whole Foods and a new PCC are slated just a stone’s throw farther. But the Co-op prides itself on being a place that’s different: a place where consumers are invested in the food that nourishes them, and where members have a voice in the business of feeding the community. From the produce boxes to the bulk bins to the freezer section, Central Co-op has made fresh and minimally transported products available to its consumers since 1978. And as the community has grown, the Co-op has kept pace while staying true to its roots.

“Cooperatives are enterprises that are focused on meeting the needs of their members, as opposed to maximizing profits for a small group of people,” explains Susanna Schultz, marketing director for Central Co-op. “Because we are owned by people who use and work at our co-op, income generated through our business gets re-invested in making our business more effective at meeting member needs, and it gets reinvested in our community through our superlative wages and benefits, through our emphasis on Washington suppliers, and through discounts and dividends for members. As a cooperative, we recognize that when our community has access to great products and our workers are getting great wages, everybody wins, and our community is stronger for it as a whole.”

Last year, members and customers came through the Co-op’s doors more than half a million times, and on the shelves, they found 417 Washington suppliers and producers represented. Local products generated over $6 million in sales that filtered back to the community: to producers in the form of revenue, to the city and state in the form of taxes, to Co-op consumer members and worker members in the form of discounts and dividends, and to Co-op workers in the form of living wages. A leader on living wages for co-operative grocers around the country, Central Co-op’s pay scale for entry-level positions during 2016 ranged from $15 to $20.14 per hour.

Looking holistically at the system that produces, sells, and consumes food in our region, the Co-op occasionally invests in additional initiatives outside its walls. In 2015, the Co-op was a leading participant in the effort to have Seattle named a “Bee City, USA,” a designation that commits the City to habitat restoration and conservation efforts for pollinators.

“Without bees, we wouldn’t be able to share such a wide variety of produce with our customers,” Co-op General Manager Dan Arnett explained in a public announcement. “And we understand that the strength of our food system depends on pollinator health in our region and beyond.” Similarly, the Co-op supported a campaign around transparency in GMO labeling in Washington State, citing transparency as an important part of maintaining consumers’ ability to choose what they purchase and eat.

Jimmy Jia, who moved to Capitol Hill two years ago, shops at Central Co-op and volunteers his time recruiting and nominating members to the board. Jia says he’s “always discovering some new food item every time I walk through the store,” but he’s partial to OlyKraut, a gourmet sauerkraut made in Olympia by one of his former students from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, now Pinchot University.

“There are so many stores up and down Madison,” Jia says, “but the Co-op is the one that’s as community-oriented as possible. Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, converting to a solidarity model — they make investments in places that really show their commitment to the community.”

The solidarity model of governance, which Central’s members voted into policy in 2015, means the Co-op is owned and democratically controlled by customers and workers who have purchased a share of the business. Prior to 2015, Central operated as a consumer-owned cooperative, the more standard model for grocery co-ops around the country. In the consumer-owned model, yearly net profits attributable to member purchases were divided among consumer-members equally, as the board saw fit. Now those profits will be divided — half going to consumers (as a percentage of how much they shopped) and half to workers (as a percentage of how much they worked) — and workers will have two additional seats on the board of directors. While workers don’t have to be members, every member gets an equal vote.

The change in governance model is breaking new ground for Central Co-op; they don’t know of many co-ops in the country who have made this conversion. “But if the Co-op went out of business,” Schultz says, “workers would be way more affected than consumers. That’s part of why we want workers to have their voice at the table.”

Besides the governance model change and philosophical growth Central Co-op has undergone in the past few years, the Co-op is growing in physical ways, as well. In the 2015 election, which saw record high participation, members overwhelmingly voted to merge Central Co-op with the Tacoma Food Co-op. Members of both stores saw similarities in their communities, but the Tacoma store was small and wanted to expand.

“We saw an opportunity to help them get what they wanted in terms of pricing and amenities — a deli counter, a classroom [to offer workshops and classes for things like cheese-making and fermenting, as the Seattle co-op does],” Schultz said. But shortly after the merger in 2016, the Tacoma store lost its lease. Finding a new space is on the top of the board’s priority list for 2017.

In the life of a business, 39 years might not seem like the moment to enter “adolescence,” but if 40 is the new 20, then maybe Central Co-op is right on track for this huge spurt of growth and change. The Co-op’s model is built to shift and respond to the needs of the community, after all.

“The Co-op will have to change,” says Jia, thinking about the growth of the Capitol Hill neighborhood and the surrounding city. “It’s a question of how do we continue to take care of the community as our community shifts.”

Margot Kahn is the author of Horses That Buck and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology This is the Place: Women Writing About Home. She loves all baked goods and the occasional roasted vegetable.

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