Co-op markets became popular in the seventies when, seeking organic and local food that mainstream grocery stores rarely carried, customers banded together to create an alternative. Members enjoy relatively low prices through the co-op’s bulk purchase of high quality foodstuffs, and they also have a say in what products the store stocks. “Neighborhood people are our base,” says Chris Durkin, Director of Membership and Community Relations. Customers tend to be well-educated and affluent—as Durkin puts it, “There’s a knowledge and awareness.”
Harvest’s two branches started separately. Students at
Both co-op sites are among, in Durkin’s words, “diverse, very inclusive neighborhoods that are more accepting.” Small independent stores and corporate outlets such as the Gap coexist with Harvest along
Nowadays, Harvest’s General Manager Mike St. Clair thinks the business climate is more challenging. “Big chains are figuring out natural and organic,” he says. Besides competition, the cost of startup is formidable. He estimates it would now cost 3-5 million dollars to start an urban co-op from scratch.
Until recently, big chains focused on suburban markets, where costs were cheap and demand high. “Co-ops went into places where regular companies didn’t think they could make money,” says St. Clair, which is why some rural areas, as well as cities, are strongholds for co-ops.
A major catalyst for the growth of organic and natural foods was a 60 Minutes episode on the 1989 Alar apple scare, named for a carcinogen used by farmers to ripen apples simultaneously. The demand for organic food, and with it, co-ops, has risen steadily ever since, pushed by subsequent alarm over Mad Cow Disease and contaminated milk. Ironically, the recent E. Coli spinach scare shows that organic food is quite susceptible to contamination, and it is virtually impossible to save apples from worms unless chemical pesticides are used.
Nonetheless, the organic industry is now worth well over 10 billion dollars, and mainstream supermarkets, most notably Whole Foods but also Wal-Mart, have smelled profit. Whereas in the early nineties natural food stores sold over two-thirds of all organic products and supermarkets less a tenth, supermarkets now sell by far the greater share.
Harvest Co-ops now have an even greater incentive to emphasize the quality and local nature of their products. “We count on the community coming in and shopping,” says Durkin. That the co-ops stock Coke and Pepsi may seem surprising, but Durkin says, “We don’t dictate what people should buy… Education is on top of everything.” On the other hand, Harvest’s selection of spices and bulk foods is truly distinctive; while these items aren’t particularly profitable, they are popular with customers. And in a nod to influx of professionals in
St. Clair expanded upon how the Harvest aspires to serve the local community. “Our profits go back to the community.” Regarding local vendors, “We can turn on a dime.” Whereas it would take a big chain several months to integrate a local farm’s products into its supply chain, if indeed it was willing to at all, Harvest can get a novel product such as Water Buffalo Yogurt onto its shelves in under a week after a deal. Besides, Harvest allows locals such as Red Fire Farm, of
Other co-ops have not been as agile.
Certainly Bostonians have an affinity for local products. The cluster of farmers markets in the metro area—20 to 25, depending on how one defines the metro area—rivals that of any major American city. Rachel Travers examined the popularity of gourmet food stores with a natural twist, especially in affluent suburbs, in the Winter issue of Edible Boston.
Bostonians were actually quite hospitable to the sustainable food movement in its early days. Distribution followed a different model here than in other towns. Bread & Circus, so named because it sold wooden toys along with culinary items, was founded in
Durkin speculates that Bread and Circus diminished the demand for co-ops. In other cities, he says, “people were more used to working together for things.” In
Whole Foods bought Bread and Circus in 1992, and it has since expanded the chain to 15 stores in the
McGowan affirmed that Whole Foods allows its stores some autonomy, indeed, that “part of the mission is to help grow the local offering… We set up a relationship with a farm in advance—when the season comes, they’ll come to us [with the product].” McGowan could not, however, estimate what percentage of Whole Food’s products is local. A glance at product labels around the store shows that the vast majority arrive via the regional distribution center in
Of Whole Foods, St. Clair speaks unequivocally. “They’re big, corporate, and vicious. But every day they go further corporate, we differentiate ourselves from them. There’s a benefit for us.”
Thus far, however, while Harvest may be holding its own, Whole Foods is growing steadily. In the end,