New Seward Co-op opens with more items, jobs

Noah (11, left) and Kieran Souster (7) grabbed some grub from the new co-op’s hot bar.

Photo by Jeremy Stratton

Co-op board believes expansion will thrive despite economy

Correction: the print edition (and this online version, until this correction) stated that the Seward Co-op’s membership had grown to 1,016. In fact, corrects Tom Vogel, the co-op’s marketing and member services manager, Seward Co-op currently has close to 6,000 members, up from approximately 2,000 in 2002 In 2002. The 1,016 number is perhaps more indicative of the co-op’s annual growth, rather than it’s total number of members, said Vogel. We apologize for the error.

Jenny Breen considers herself a Wedge Community Co-op shopper. After all, she lives closer to the Uptown store than any other co-op in town.

But she said she wishes she lived nearer the newly expanded Seward Co-op Grocery and Deli — redesigned with the environment in mind at 2823 E. Franklin Ave. — while shopping at the co-op’s new location a week after it opened.

“This would be my first choice,” Breen said as she perused the expanded bulk candy and nuts section. “There’s better produce, and I like the deli and cheese selection.”

A week earlier, a large crowd joined city officials, members of the design team and members of the co-op and its board for the Jan. 8 ceremonial “vine-cutting” to mark the official opening of the co-op.

Speaking to the crowd, Ward Two Council Member Cam Gordon praised the project, which he noted replaces a substandard building, improves the Franklin Avenue corridor, will expand the tax base and provide jobs.

Gordon noted that city officials weigh the public benefit of such projects before approving them.

“This is a model for us,” he said of the new co-op, the first recipient of the city’s Great Streets program funding. (Other financing came from federal new market tax credits through Midwest Minnesota CDC and Wells Fargo CDC, the North Country Cooperative Development Fund, the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund, and Hennepin County’s Environmental Response funds and the Metropolitan Council’s Tax Base Revitalization funds through Seward Redesign and the co-op.)

In its first week, community buzz about the new store attracted enough shoppers to exceed expectations, said General Manager Sean Doyle.

“In terms of just the sales, we expected a pretty direct spike, but not the level we’re at,” he said. “We anticipate that will settle down a little bit.”

Green inside and out

The revamped two-story co-op, at 26,500 square feet, has almost doubled in size. Still, Doyle prides the store on careful planning through the construction process that barely boosts energy usage over that of the old store.

Designed by Seward’s own Close Associates and built by Watson-Forsberg, the building’s green features include white roofing for climate control, skylights and recycled construction materials — including flooring from the old store — to minimize the co-op’s carbon footprint. Rain gardens and a sloped parking lot capture 90 percent of stormwater runoff.

The store has applied for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification, a widely recognized measurement of sustainable construction and operation.

After a year, LEED evaluators will assess the co-op and if the LEED-sanctioned green features still fit into everyday co-op operations, they will officially grant the certification.

The new building is also green in the literal sense — panels that look like tree leaves layered to form the exterior.

What’s new?

Soon after the Jan. 8 vine-cutting, Tova Sularz, who was “born and raised” in Seward, called the new store “awesome” as she perused the expanded Wellness section. Sularz looked forward to a larger selection than at the former, smaller co-op — like products she’s seen at other co-ops around the country. “I imagine, with more space, there’ll be more of those products here, as well,” she said.

In that same vein, employee Chris Madden said it’s “good to have the chance to offer more products that we didn’t have before.” Madden, who works in the refrigerated groceries section, pointed to the expanded selection of eggs — all from a now-larger pool of local farmers.

More eggs and the all-new cheese counter that Breen applauded are not the only new fare available at the new co-op. The meat and seafood departments are all new, the produce department is larger, and the deli is four times the size as before, featuring an expanded hot bar, breakfast items, rotisserie chickens, family-sized dinners and more.

Like Madden’s local eggs, many of the new cheeses and meats are from local dealers within 100 miles of the Twin Cities, said co-op marketing and membership manager Tom Vogel.

The co-op also boasts a community room and classroom space, a larger seating area and, finally, almost twice as many parking spots outside.

Weathering the current economy

The co-op has not only seen an increase in customers, but boasts 50 new jobs, according to Doyle. In this economy, that’s an accomplishment, said co-op Board President David Hoffman-Dachelet, who believes the co-op is in a position to succeed despite widespread commercial struggles. Doyle agrees.

“In tough economic times, grocery stores tend to do quite well, because people still need to eat, and not eating at restaurants as much could mean going to the co-op more,” Doyle said. “In many ways, a grocery store is a counter-cyclical business.”

Even though the co-op’s board began exploring expansion options nearly five years ago and based many of its development decisions on pre-recession projections, Hoffman-Dachelet said he’s mindful of the economy, but the store’s future isn’t at stake.

“We’re not cash-poor in any way,” he said. “We are creating an economy right here that is based on more healthful relationships.”

Because the co-op’s members collectively own and pay into the co-op’s workforce, products and services, the store effectively becomes its own micro-economy.

“We keep as much money as we can here [at the co-op] and keep the jobs here so people can buy groceries here,” Hoffman-Dachelet said.

At the old location, the co-op had been meeting “the baseline fiscal performance we need to achieve to be successful,” he said. “We know we can be successful, because we already are.” Fellow co-op board member Dan Nordley (also the owner of Triangle Park Creative, which publishes this newspaper) told The Bridge that a 40 percent increase in sales would be needed to make the investment worthwhile.

Still, Doyle said the energy-efficient store doesn’t mean an increase in operation costs (or prices), and the co-op has shown double-digit, year-over-year growth in sales volume in the past decade — both factors that lessen the burden of staying in business.

The sales volume last calendar year was just below $13 million, and this year it’s expected to hit somewhere around $20 million. That kind of continued growth is part of what led to the move, Doyle said.

“One of the primary reasons why we moved was that the demand on that [previous] space was really remarkable,” Doyle said.

In the new store, membership is expected to continue to grow, Vogel said. In 2002, the co-op had 282 members, a figure that’s crept up to 1,016.

As far as customers go, the new store is across the street from two residential high-rises that could bring a business boost. Signs outside the store indicate nonmembers are welcome to shop to dispel misconceptions.

Regular shoppers who lived close to the old location expressed some dismay at the move, but, having moved only six blocks from the previous location, the co-op’s board doesn’t expect a significant shift in customer base.

“We want to serve everybody who wants what we’ve got in Seward,” Hoffman-Dachelet said.

last revised: February 16, 2009