Ashland Food Co-op looking healthy

Its vision may be "people, not profits," but the Ashland Food Co-op in 35 years has grown from a tiny storefront to one of the five highest-grossing natural food co-ops in the United States.

Its sales total $18.9 million a year. It employs 135 people, most of whom make a living wage. It grants thousands of dollars each year to community projects. And last year, it was listed as one of Oregon's 100 Best Companies to Work For.

"It's hard to explain, this cooperative feeling," says Annie Hoy, outreach and owner services manager. "It's kind of like a potluck or a barn-raising. Everyone contributes and helps establish unity.

"It's about pooling risk and sharing reward," she adds. "A portion of our owners get it &

but everyone gets it when they receive their first patronage refund."

Ashland won its place alongside big-city co-ops in Minneapolis, Seattle and Sacramento by having a concentrated population of healthy-living enthusiasts, high-quality, locally grown, organic produce, an experienced staff and a "watering hole" atmosphere in which shoppers like to visit with old friends, says General Manager Richard Katz.

Katz says the bulk of the co-op's revenues go toward goods and labor, with .5 percent of revenues, about $100,000, kept as surplus for improvements, debt and other expenses.

The co-op will spend some $50,000 this year on its Community Grants Program, in which grants of $1,000 or less are awarded to such organizations as the Community Garden, Peace House, ScienceWorks, Start Making a Reader Today, the Ashland Parks Foundation and the Multi-Cultural Association.

Instead of "investors," the co-op has 4,800 "owners" who pay $100 to join. In return, they receive a bimonthly newsletter, coupons and other discounts, and an annual refund check based on purchases that averages about $50.

Changing in 2004 from a "mutual benefit non-profit" to a true cooperative was "the missing piece of the puzzle," says Hoy.

"It's a democratic, member-controlled organization. It fell in place in people's minds that they really do have a tangible part in making this our cooperative."

Ben Benjamin, a supplier and longtime shopper at the co-op, says the people are the co-op's greatest appeal.

"You feel at home and at ease here in this great atmosphere," Benjamin says. "That and the food &

a great variety, wonderful. They have great outreach and support courses, then send you a check, and that bespeaks its cooperative nature."

The board is comprised of unpaid owner-members. Employees are supported at and above the living wage standard, says staff director and board member Ric Sayre, who works as a checkout clerk.

Workers get medical coverage after six months on the job. After two years, they make more than the $11-an-hour living wage threshold and earn a quarterly productivity bonus of $500 to $600 and an annual profit-sharing check of $200 to $300, says Sayre.

The co-op last year was chosen by Oregon Business Magazine as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For, based on a confidential survey of employees.

"I feel very good about working for a cooperative instead of a corporation," says employee Kilmeny Hall. "It's the values of community, support of local merchants and growers and eating fresh, local, healthy food."

The co-op started in 1972 in a tiny storefront on North Main Street, a block off the Plaza. It established itself in the next two decades as a medium-sized market on Third Street, then moved in 1993 to its spacious location, which it built, on Pioneer Street.

It had revenues of $5.2 million in 1997, doubling to $10.5 million in 2002, when it decided to remodel, expand and create a deli, rather than open a second store in Medford, says Katz.

The co-op rode the wave of natural foods marketing, establishing itself before competitors such as Market of Choice and Shop-n-Kart started selling natural foods. Lately, other chains, such as Safeway and Wal-Mart, have added natural foods to their lines.

The co-op chose not to enter the Medford market, says Katz, noting "Medford and Ashland are different communities." But the Ashland co-op did give a $10,000 grant to the budding Medford co-op to help with a lease. It is not associated with it, however.

Prices at the co-op could not be mistaken for those of a volume discount market. But the co-op does have a pricing program in which the top 10 percent of most purchased goods receives an "extra low markup that helps satisfy people's basic needs," says Katz.

The philosophy of a cooperative, Hoy says, is that "it puts people, not profit, at the heart of the business. We're humane and focused on community.

"Now more than ever, when you have so many mega-corporations and distant owners, something locally owned and controlled and sustainable, something that keeps the economy going, it's what makes Ashland such a great place to live &

and it keeps dollars in the community. People yearn for that, to do more together than individually. It's hard-wired into our DNA. I call it, 'groceries for a higher purpose.'"

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