After four decades of change, Ashland Food Co-op hasn't forgotten its roots.
The business — born as a buying club for bulk foods — still offers the best bulk-bin products at the best prices, according to readers of Oregon Healthy Living. The store at 237 N. First St., Ashland also earned top honors in the categories of Favorite Health/Natural Foods Store, Best Organic Produce Section and Favorite Juice Bar in consecutive Readers' Picks contests.
The co-op began retail grocery operations in 1972 as Ashland Community Food Store. Remodeling and expansion projects, as well as hiring more paid staff, polished up its image as a mainstream grocer. At its genesis, the co-op relied on volunteer workers who earned store discounts. It now has a paid staff of 160.
Reorganizing 10 years ago as a cooperative operating on a not-for-profit basis also gave the co-op its current name. Nearly 8,000 owners make it their one-stop shop for groceries.
"Our bulk department probably has the freshest food because there's so much turnover," says Annie Hoy, manager of outreach and owner services. "We're getting a new bag in there every day."
With nearly 600 products constituting about 7.5 percent of all co-op sales, the bulk section is touted through the store's Meal Solutions program, which conducts frequent, in-store demonstrations and tastings and hands out recipes. The co-op's "basic pricing" program on nearly 150 pantry-staple items also makes bulk purchases attractive.
"We purposely take a really low margin on those bulk foods," says Hoy. "They're such a great value."
Customers also find plenty of value in the store's produce section, accounting for about 18.5 percent of co-op receipts. Inventory changes seasonally to avoid competing with local farmers who also have stalls at area growers markets. Locally grown, certified-organic produce is available virtually year-round at the co-op.
The region's first certified-organic retailer, the co-op obtained Oregon Tilth's seal of approval in 2008 for its handling, displaying and vending practices of certified-organic products. The process ensures that foods produced under certified-organic conditions were not compromised by exposure to conventional counterparts, says Hoy.
The same produce is used at the store's "juice-and-java" counter, which does a brisk business in green smoothies with kale — suddenly the must-have food, says Hoy. The juice bar also has a new assortment of teas to complement locally roasted, organic Noble coffee. In response to growing demand for raw foods, the deli's grab-and-go section will have more prepared, raw spreads, dips, crackers and sushi this year, she adds.
Full-service meat and deli departments, along with beer, wine, gourmet breads, cheeses and condiments are just a few reasons that co-op owners and hundreds of occasional customers cite the store as their overall favorite.
The co-op values, posted on its website at www.ashlandfood.coop, guide its operation, whether openly disclosing information about its operations and governance or lobbying other businesses to change their practices. Upholding those values, the store has a new partnership with Ashland Family YMCA to educate kids, parents and other caregivers about healthful snacks, says Hoy.
Long known for "green" initiatives, the co-op made news in recent years for banning bottled-water sales and plastic bags at its checkout stands. Purchasing from local food producers and collaborating with other locally owned businesses is just another strategy for being sustainable, the co-op's board says.
With 2012 designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Cooperatives, Rogue Valley residents can look for more partnerships between Ashland Food Co-op and other similar, local businesses, says Hoy. The store, along with Medford Food Co-op, Grange Co-op and Rogue Federal Credit Union, formed Rogue Co-ops, an entity that aims "to spread the word," says Hoy. Bumper stickers, banners, buttons and the group's "dog-and-pony show" will be evident this year, along with special events and cross-promotions, she says.
"We all have the same set of values."
Other favorites (Health/Natural Foods Store): Medford Food Co-op; Shop'n Kart, Ashland
Other favorites (Place to Buy Bulk Foods): Shop'n Kart; Food 4 Less
Other favorites (Organic Produce Section): Medford Food Co-op; Food 4 Less, Medford
Other favorites (Favorite Juice Bar): Extreme Juice, Medford; Organic Natural Cafe, Medford