Twin Cities co-ops star in new documentary

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January 2, 2013
By: Michelle Bruch
The Wedge Co-op CEO Josh Resnik.
By Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch
Film ‘Food for Change’ making debut as co-ops see spike in sales

If you like your co-op, consider yourself lucky to live here — the Twin Cities enjoys the greatest concentration of food co-ops in the country. The trend caught the notice of Massachusetts filmmaker Steve Alves, who spent time here in 2011 filming at co-ops including The Wedge, Linden Hills and Eastside Food Co-op. The Twin Cities chapter of his film “Food for Change” was recently screened at the United Nations as part of the 2012 InternationalYear of Cooperatives, and many local co-ops provided funding for the project.

“We have such a rich history in the food co-op world, and our founders are maturing,” said Elizabeth Archerd, membership and marketing manager for The Wedge. “Their stories need to be told. ... We were on board right away.”

The short’s release (the full documentary is due out next spring) comes at a time when local co-op sales grew 10-40 percent this year. The Wedge recently unionized its warehouse, hired a new CEO, and launched an organic plug business for farmers. The Eastside Food Co-op in Northeast is studying a possible expansion. And the Linden Hills Co-op saw record sales this year.

When Alves arrived in the Twin Cities and rented a car, he mentioned to the clerk that he was shooting a film on co-ops.

“Anywhere else in the world, people would say, ‘What’s that?’ Very often I have to explain what food co-ops are,” Alves said. “Your region has the highest concentration of food co-ops within a 25 mile radius.”

Alves said he thinks there are several reasons why co-ops flourish here. Co-ops are a part of Minnesota’s history. Scandinavian immigrants brought with them progressive ideals about cooperation in democracy, and by 1910, cooperative business accounted for nearly 30 percent of the local economy.

Sarah Wovcha, president of The Wedge Co-op Board of Directors, said her great-grandmother helped develop the nation’s first food co-op in Virginia, Minn.

“They were women who wanted to strengthen their purchasing power by coming together,” she said.

Co-ops later became part of local activism in the ’60s and ’70s, Alves said.

“When young people wanted to affect social systems and economies, the co-op felt like a natural place to put their energy,” he said. “People were willing to work very hard for very little money. They felt they were playing a role in changing the world. ... I heard so often in pre-interviews that people went to an anti-Vietnam rally, and then went to a co-op meeting.”

Alves said another reason the Twin Cities has so many co-ops is they have been managed well. They have a high failure rate — 800 co-ops started up in the 60s and 70s, he said, and just 200 exist today.

“A managing democracy sounds wonderful, but it requires really informed decision-makers,” Alves said. “In your area you are lucky; people have got their act together.”

Archerd remembers dozens of co-ops starting up along with The Wedge. One made tofu, another provided child care, and others sold electronics or serviced cars.

“The ones we have left are the survivors of the visionaries,” Archerd said. “And now we’re in another phase of co-op growth. ... It’s happening again all over the country. Hundreds of co-ops are in some phase of formation.”

Alves’ documentary says the high presence of co-ops here counters increasing corporate consolidation of the grocery business. He interviews former General Manager of The Wedge, Lindy Bannister, about her past experience working in the conventional grocery business.

“The pressures are about putting money on the bottom line,” Bannister says in the film. “And so if you don’t have your numbers in line, your gross margins, your labor percents, your sales, you’re not really important. Pressures here are self-induced to make sure that we never lose the trust with our members, that we are what we say we are, and we’re as transparent as we can possibly be.”

Co-ops are not subject to the same antitrust laws that conventional grocers must follow. As a result, co-ops are tightly connected here. When the Eastside Food Co-op started up in 2003, they received two loans and a donation from other co-ops. Twin Cities co-ops pool thousands of dollars each year to fund a nonprofit that educates elementary students about food.

“When you do a traditional market study, you talk about the competition, and you would say that Seward and Wedge are our competitors,” Fields said. “But they’re our partners.”

When the Northeast co-op opened, it didn’t appear to cannibalize anyone — instead, business actually increased at other Minneapolis co-ops. Eastside is now seeing growth of nearly 40 percent per year. Staff are currently analyzing the feasibility of expanding inside their building on Central Avenue, a portion of which is currently leased to other tenants.

Fields said it is instructive that Northeast doesn’t match the demographics of the typical food co-op crowd. Central Avenue is a main drag through town, and single-family homes lie a block away. It’s more like a small town than a dense, urban neighborhood, she said.

“It’s important to tell that story,” Fields said. “It doesn’t have to be this bastion of affluence and education and those demographics that are traditionally associated with a natural food shopper. We are a working-class neighborhood, and we’re still committed to community ownership.”

The Linden Hills Co-op also reports healthy growth. Since its relocation to Sunnyside Avenue in 2010, membership has increased 40 percent to 7,400 members. The co-op ended the year with record sales of $12.3 million, a 12 percent increase over the prior year.

At The Wedge, gross sales reached $49 million in the 2012 fiscal year, an increase of 11 percent over the prior year, with current membership at 15,500. Following the departure of former General Manager Bannister, an issue The Wedge says it can’t legally discuss, the warehouse unionized in 2012.

“The tone of the negotiations was very positive,” Wovcha said. “The Wedge Board of Directors approved negotiations with the philosophy that we wanted to do everything we could to respect the members’ wishes and rights to unionize.”

The Wedge’s new CEO, Josh Resnik, started work in December. He’s been a member of The Wedge for close to a decade, and he lived in the neighborhood for 15 years. He previously worked as CEO of Wild Idea Buffalo, a company that sells grass-fed bison meat. Prior to that job, he worked as marketing and  business unit director at General Mills. He serves on the boards of the Midtown Global Market and Mill City Farmers’ Market, and he wrote an underground food guide to Twin Cities restaurants.

“When I heard they were looking for a CEO — it’s one of those dream jobs,” Resnik said. “The sources of how food is raised is extremely important to me. I think is such an amazing, unique place.”

Archerd and Resnik don’t see the cooperative trend ebbing in future years. Even in 2009, when mainstream grocery business was down, The Wedge sales remained flat.

“ And that was in contrast to all the predictions,” Archerd said. “The news was, ‘Organic is dead, nobody’s going to want to buy this.’ And in fact, just the opposite [occurred]. ... Hard times make people reexamine what’s important to them and make sure their resources are channeled to what’s important. ... I don’t see the people of this country getting less concerned about their health or less informed about the impact of food on health.”

Alves said he has already won an award for the film — an impressive feat given that it isn’t finished yet.

“A lot of people were immediately supportive of the documentary. They understood the need to capture this history,” he said. “Co-ops are not typical businesses. It’s being willing to stand for principles that are higher than just profits.”

To view the film, visit foodforchange.coop.

Reach Michelle Bruch at mbruch@mnpubs.com.