After conducting a six-month national search for a new general manager, Ashland Food Co-op announced last week it would hire close to home.

After conducting a six-month national search for a new general manager, Ashland Food Co-op announced last week it would hire close to home.

Emile Amarotico, the Medford Food Co-op's general manager, will replace Ashland's retiring GM, Richard Katz, on July 1.

The men say the success of the local co-ops, along with a proliferation of growers markets and the recent addition of Trader Joe's and Natural Grocers demonstrates a demand for healthful, organic and sustainably grown food.

"I don't think (competition) hurts. I think it builds the market," said Katz. "The more awareness there is about choosing foods, the more options (consumers) get. And as awareness grows, appreciations grows, too."

Amarotico, 53, said he began shopping at the Ashland co-op in the late 1970s, when he was a dishwasher for Callahan's restaurant. After moving to New York and graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, where he met his wife, the young chef "cooked his way across America."

Stints in restaurants in Texas and San Francisco convinced Amarotico he needed to "get a business degree with an accounting emphasis." He returned to Ashland, attended Southern Oregon University, then worked in Portland at an accounting firm, he said.

But Ashland drew him back, and Amarotico returned to help start Standing Stone Brewing Co. in the mid-'90s.

Amarotico's "aha!" moment came when he realized using organic malted barley in his beers would not only improve taste, it would help the environment, he said.

"It wasn't just what was in the glass," Amarotico said.

"It was realizing how much smaller a footprint on the Earth" the organic crop made, because it didn't require chemical pesticides, herbicides or create toxic soil or water run-off issues, he said.

"My mom was a health-food nut back in the '60s," Amarotico said. "But I don't know that I really got it until I saw the bigger picture."

Amarotico served on the Ashland co-op's finance committee from 2006 to 2009, and he said he was happily surprised to see how much it had grown.

Katz and Amarotico became friends through the Ashland co-op. When Amarotico saw the opportunity to take the helm at the Medford Food Co-op two-and-a-half years ago, he went for it, saying he was impressed with the support he saw for the fledgling market.

"It was the middle of a recession, and they had raised capital," Amarotico said.

Medford's sales this year are 33 percent above last year's, "and we intend to continue that trend," said a notice from Medford co-op board President Jim Sims.

Katz said he has no firm plans for life after the Ashland co-op, but he doesn't plan to leave Ashland.

"Truthfully, I've reserved that for myself as an unanswered question," he said.

Amarotico said he applied to replace Katz at the Ashland co-op because it's closer to his home, and because it's 40 years old and one of the biggest co-ops in the nation.

"That kind of success is attractive," Amarotico said.

The Ashland Food Co-op boasts 8,000 owners in a town with a population of 25,000, Amarotico said.

"It's all based on education. People are demanding more from their food and paying attention to the impact it is having on the environment," he said.

A national search has begun to fill Amarotico's job at the Medford Food Co-op.

The co-op's annual meeting and election of new directors is slated for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 18, at the Old Scottish Rite Hall, on the corner of East Barnett Road and North Phoenix Road, in Medford.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or