From their humble beginnings in 1971 as a food-buying club, to their current status as Southern Oregon’s first and only Certified Organic Retailer, the Ashland Food Co-op has been connecting our community to healthy, local food for decades. With over 10,000 members strong, Ashland Food Co-op has passion, purpose, and a whole lot of love. They are more than just a grocery store; they are on a mission to change the world. The cooperative business model is the mission. The Co-op places people, principles, and the planet before profit—always. Their exceptionally high standards give customers confidence, knowing that they prioritize their relationships with local farmers and food producers first, and fill our store with healthy products that can be trusted. In today’s interview I speak with interim marketing manager, Rebecca Torpie.
Hi Rebecca, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.
Thank you, I’m happy that I get the opportunity to!
Sure. I’m a consultant with CDS Consultant Co-op. We’re a cooperative of consultants who primarily work with food co-ops around the country. My specialty is helping food co-ops and independent natural foods retailers with marketing and communications and outreach work. I’m here at Ashland Food Co-op as their interim marketing manager while they search for a new permanent marketing manager
Rebecca, in your work with co-ops across North America, you rank Ashland Food Co-op in one of the Top 5. Please tell us about that.
Ashland Food Co-op is doing very well against its competitors relative to other co-ops. Many co-ops are having a much tougher time in their particular markets. In some respects, the Co-op is very lucky that it’s been in sync with the vibe of the town itself for as long as it’s been around. They’ve evolved together. There are very loyal owners who support the Co-op not just as the place to buy their food, but they also know it as a community hub too. It’s a place to be seen! There’s a nice synergy going on there.
What exactly is a co-op and why is it different than a regular grocery store?
A co-op is a business that is owned by a group of people, and each person owns an equal share of the business. It is governed by a board of directors who are voted in by the owners. The Board makes decisions about the business on the owners’ behalf. Co-ops are created in the interest of the owners, and by extension in the interest of the community in which they live. They are not about making profit, per se, though co-ops must be profitable in order to be working in the best interest of the owners and to be able to give back to the community. What does that look like? It looks like being able to operate efficiently, offering a living wage and benefits to workers, and donating and sponsoring community groups and non-profit partners. Owners want many things from their co-op: great prices as well as the desire to do good in the community. It’s not an easy task for a business with a 1-2% industry profit margin to manage. A regular grocery store doesn’t need to juggle all that.
People join co-ops for all kinds of reasons. Some people join co-ops solely for the economic benefits that they get from their co-op memberships—the discounts at the shelf level. Other people join co-ops because they enjoy the social nature of coming to their co-op and seeing neighbors and feeling a part of a community of folks with shared values – like keeping their money local. And others join because they feel very strongly that the cooperative business model is an important one that needs to be supported in our capitalist economy. Commonly shared values? It would be too simplistic to answer ‘yes’ to that question because co-ops welcome everyone and anyone not only to shop, but also to join. I would say that maybe the common thread among us all might be having just a bit of a unique streak!
The Ashland Food Co-op is a hub for community activity. Please say more.
A board member described the Co-op as a ‘vortex’ of community activity. That feels apt. There’s always a lot going on in that little courtyard! One day there’s someone playing the didgeridoo, and the next is an impromptu folk mash-up or a group of kids just hanging out chugging their kombuchas. We’re always putting on events, sampling products, and highlighting local producers at the Co-op. Lots of Ashlanders come to congregate and be social and out-of-towners come to check out the scene, have some lunch at the deli, and enjoy the local culture! A visit is practically in the guidebooks. If you live in, or come to, Ashland you come to the Co-op. It’s kind of the heartbeat of the town.
Rebecca, in your experience in working with co-ops, what contributes the most to their success?
Being adaptive to the times and being open to being open. The co-ops that succeed are the ones willing to be self-reflective, flexible, and not get stuck in the ‘70s. Grocery is an enormously difficult business and requires the capability of being able to say, “We’ve been doing it like this forever, but you know what? We need to change to become more efficient or to appeal to a new audience because if we don’t, we’re going to fail.” It’s really that simple. The co-ops that are the most successful in the long term are the ones who have courageous leadership willing to take risks to innovate, develop leaders within, and create an amazing customer experience. Expectations are high these days, and co-ops need to meet them to win.
In a sense, yes. That sense of community and the desire to build a shared economy outside of big corporate I think are the same. If you look at the newest type of business model that takes out the middleman altogether, and instead one human does business with another human, ( like AirBnB or Lyft), that’s young people’s values reflecting those of their 1970s counterparts in a new way. That said, young people today have higher expectations of what service looks like—they want a great visual experience, knowledgeable, friendly and present staff, and easy and delightful shopping. Those variables weren’t nearly as important 40 years ago as they are today.
How does the Ashland Co-op work to keep food prices affordable to all shoppers?
Unfortunately, the Co-op suffers from a price perception issue we work hard to battle. Trust me, we’ve done the comparisons, and we come in the same or cheaper on more products than not than our friends across town. But because we’re “The Co-op,” there’s an automatic idea out there that we’re just spendier. We don’t do those insanely low case stack deals to drive you in to shop, that’s not our business model. If you are a member of the Co-op, you automatically get 10% off three shops a year, and $5 off $25 the other nine months of the year. That’s reason enough to join right there. You can easily make back your equity investment (which is refundable should you leave the Co-op) in a year. We also offer owner discounts on our cooking classes, everyone—owners or not—can save via buying from our bulk section, and you also get 10% when you spend $100 or more in the Wellness department. Everyone also saves through our Co+op Basics program.
The Co-op lowered prices on over 300 produce, pantry and household staples to make healthy food more accessible to more people. These are high quality products—really good stuff! Some are local, and many are the Field Day brand, which is organic/Non GMO. You could fill your cart with Co+op Basics. Just look for the purple tag.
Along with being GMO-free, the Co-op also prides itself in offer a huge selection of local products.
We define local as produced or grown with 200 miles of the Co-op. About 30% of the Co-op’s products are locally sourced. Supporting local producers is a part of our mission—and lots of co-ops missions. It helps to keep our community’s economy strong. Don’t forget that the Co-op deli is considered local too!
Our goal is to have a 100% GMO-free store. The primary challenges in accomplishing this goal are that current food regulations in the US don’t require the labeling of GMO ingredients. The Co-op is proud to be leading the movement in advocating for transparency in GMO labeling locally and throughout Oregon. Although it is slow going, we are determined. We are using the following strategy to achieve our goal. Food products carried before 2014 must contain no GMOs in the first three ingredients to conform to our Product Standards. As of 2014, any new food products brought in must contain no GMOs in any ingredient in order to conform to AFC Product Standards
As odd as it may sound, I see co-ops taking many different paths that reflect their particular communities and markets. Not all food co-ops will look like Ashland’s with the same product standards, because that might not be what that particular community of owners’ desire. They may want a hybrid store-one that is a blend of conventional and natural foods products. It goes back to co-ops being flexible and adaptive in order to compete and survive. It’s about creating a great shopping experience for the shoppers that you’re serving. Ideally, we’ll see Americans taking the food co-op movement and bringing it into other sectors of business to bring some real visibility of the viability of the model.
When you first started working at the Ashland Food Co-op, what were some of the most delightful surprises you discovered?
The amazing skills set of the marketing team was such a joy to walk into and help manage. What a great group of people who collaborate and they are so creative! I also really loved the impromptu didgeridoo guy in the courtyard.
What has been your favorite thing to do in Ashland?
Oh that’s a tough one. It’s a toss up between reading my book at the bandshell in Lithia Park or having a cocktail at Ostras!
The Co-op has an awesome e-newsletter that you can sign up for at the website ashlandfood.coop. We have a weekly sales flyer as well as fun articles about Co-op news. And there’s an events calendar on the website as well. We have cooking classes a couple times a month and Free Monday Night Lectures as well, open to everyone. We’re the community vortex!
Finally, are there any last thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?
Come to the Co-op! Not only to buy your favorite groceries, but to support the mission and the community. And if you’re lucky, hear a live didgeridoo!
Ashland Food Co-op
237 N. 1st Street