Sarah Lemon • photos Bob Pennell"> 2325~1200338~
The first modern-day cooperative grocery store in Medford isn't just a boon to local shoppers. It's part of a nationwide resurgence in co-ops that looks to keep growing.
The Medford Food Co-op opened in August following five years of planning, fundraising, regrouping, remodeling and finally stocking the shelves of its Riverside Avenue store, and members could hardly contain their excitement.
"We're so glad that they're open," says Terry Beaman, a Medford resident and Co-op member. "We're going to try to buy as much from the Co-op as possible."
Such sentiments are striking a chord with more and more Americans, who value strategic spending and, at the same time, deeper understanding of where their food comes from. In this climate of economics meets ethics, small grocers who focus on locally produced, natural foods are finding favor with shoppers who can enjoy the additional perk of membership.
With 1,550 members, Medford Food Co-op is one of 300 cooperatives around the country, and at least 250 others are under development in cities from New Orleans to Fairbanks, Alaska, according to an August story by The Associated Press. During the past three years, 10 to 12 new stores have opened each year, according to Cooperative Grocer magazine, which keeps an online directory of food co-ops, the AP reported.
Medford was the largest city in the Pacific Northwest — Washington, Oregon and Idaho — without a food co-op, according to a summer 2007 market study by Pete Davis, a natural-food location-research consultant in Port Townsend, Wash. At the time of that study, about 20 percent of Ashland Food Co-op customers hailed from Medford.
"The good news is Ashland has provided such a great model," says Medford Food Co-op general manager Emile Amarotico. "Ashland has been backing Medford for so many years."
Inspired in 2005 by Ashland's success, investors hoped to establish a similar venture in Medford by 2007. But the project was dogged by difficulties in a depressed economy. The Co-op's lender tabled its loan in 2007, and the fledging membership terminated its months-long lease of a former hardware store downtown.
Yet the organization persevered, managed to raise half a million dollars by summer 2010 and chose to install its store at 945 S. Riverside Ave., just around the corner from Winco. After a year of renovations that cost approximately $250,000, the Co-op's distinctive, avocado-green building with purple trim is full of organic vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy products — some locally and regionally produced — as well as dry goods, frozen foods, bulk items, beers, wines and health and beauty aids. Stocking some 15,000 items is the Co-op's goal, says Amey Broeker, who manages the health and wellness section but helped select products for most of the store.
"If we don't have what they want, we want them to tell us," says Broeker, referring to members and other patrons.
Shoppers aren't shy about speaking up, and they make dozens of suggestions daily to the Co-op's management, which predicted much of the feedback. One frequent request is for a grinder to yield fresh nut butters. And ready-to-eat snacks and entrees are high on everyone's wish list.
"Everybody wants a deli," says Broeker, adding that the feature is "way down the road."
The Co-op has a contract with Confident Caterers of Medford to produce salads, sandwiches, olive tapanade, hummus, artichoke dip, bruschetta and salad dressings, says Broeker. There also are plans to stock some of the company's take-and-bake entrees in the Co-op's freezer section, she adds.
Citing Ashland Food Co-op's successful deli, Amarotico says Medford Food Co-op doesn't have space to install a commercial kitchen in the near future, adding that a deli would be a "phase two" project. The Co-op building's footprint in the middle of its property does leave space for expansion, he adds.
In reality, Medford Food Co-op offers a much wider array of products earlier in its tenure than Ashland Food Co-op did. The latter, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, didn't have a meat section until about a decade ago. Its popular culinary-education program was founded eight years ago by Mary Shaw, a Medford resident and ardent community sponsor of the town's new co-op.
"I love co-ops," says Shaw. "There could never be too many."
Medford's culinary education likely will be housed in a 2,000-square-foot building perpendicular to the main store's facade, says Amarotico. Once renovated at a cost of $50,000 to $75,000, the "community room" will host lectures, classes and culinary demonstrations, he says, adding that work could begin as early as a year from now.
"I don't want to take my eye off the ball."
Keeping the ball rolling, Medford Food Co-op's counterpart in Ashland delivered a $10,000 sponsorship check to mark the Aug. 13 grand opening. The money, says Amarotico, is reserved for capital, perhaps to pay for some major equipment.
Medford also is looking to Ashland to furnish the model for its own "basic pricing" program to be implemented this month. The Co-op commits to providing certain staple items, usually dry goods, at prices that yield the smallest possible profits for the store, says Amarotico. The concept is one selling point of co-op membership, along with dividends paid to members with board of directors' approval.
Another selling point is the store's support of the local economy, agriculture in particular, say members. Medford Food Co-op is purchasing organic produce from 10 Rogue Valley farms, says Amarotico, and will continue to prioritize customers' two main criteria for the Co-op: organic and local.
Eagle Point ranchers Charlie and Pam Boyer have never been members of a grocery cooperative but decided to contribute funds to Medford's effort even though they didn't plan to be regular shoppers. If more local farmers had followed suit, says Charlie Boyer, the Co-op would have "been up and running a lot sooner."
"You got to try," says Boyer, 64. "Somebody's got to feed us. And one day, I'm going to be too old, and I want the food to keep coming."
Medford Food Co-op is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Call 541-779-2667 or see www.medfordfood.coop. Correction: The co-op's phone number has been corrected in this version.