The Medford Food Co-op enters its third year of business in a new phase with a new face at the helm.
Anne Carter, a veteran of 14 years in the cooperative business, including the past 11 overseeing a similar operation in northeastern Minnesota, has been named general manager. She succeeds Emile Amarotico, who recently took the general manager job at the Ashland Food Co-op.
In his tenure at Medford, Amarotico guided the organization from a concept to reality two years ago. The co-op exceeded early expectations, reaching profitability well before its first anniversary and building membership to 2,000 and revenue to $3 million.
In passing the baton, Amarotico figures he made the perfect handoff. "Anne is experienced at growing an organization that was small enough that she had hands-on experience in every corner of the business — trimming and setting up, receiving and stocking, groceries to wellness," Amarotico said. "She probably has more product knowledge in her pinkie than I have in all of me."
Carter nearly tripled revenue at the Natural Harvest Food Cooperative in the northeastern Minnesota city of Virginia over a 10-year period in a time when the region's mining-based economy was in decline.
"The Midwest is a hotbed for cooperative enterprise, and Anne has co-op DNA," Amarotico said. "She took a small organization that was doing $700,000 a year and in the next 10 years grew it to the $2 million they will do this year."
The co-op in Virginia, a town of 9,000 midway between Duluth and the Canadian border, opened for business in 1979 and then built its current store in 1995. But the region's taconite (a lower-quality ore used for making steel) mining has suffered — much as the timber industry in the Northwest.
"Natural Harvest went through a rough financial time shortly after the new store opened," Carter said. "So even though the co-op had existed for nearly 20 years, it was kind of like starting over with a new store. We had to focus on bringing in new customers and member-owners into a much bigger retail space."
She left 21 employees behind in Virginia and has a staff of 25 here. "This is definitely a bigger organization, but it's not a huge jump," Carter said.
The major challenge in the Rogue Valley will be competition. Natural Harvest draws customers from as far away as 100 miles and has regular shoppers in a 70-to-90-mile radius. The nearest cooperative or natural food store was in Duluth — an hour's drive.
Chain stores Trader Joe's and Natural Grocers have set up shop in the past year, and Sherm's Food 4 Less has a sizable organic section.
"The main thing is that a co-op is more than a place to buy groceries," Carter said. "It's a community of people who are passionate about food and where their food is coming from. The food connection leads to other areas, and what makes them unique and important is that they are often anchors in their communities.
"You don't go into another grocery store and have conversations about food-industry issues like GMO labeling, that just doesn't happen. But those are very important issues that are going to have an impact on us for many, many years."
While there was no specific mandate, Carter would like to see a deli or coffee bar where people can have lunch at the co-op in the near future. As a vegetarian for the past 30 years, she has ideas on balanced diets using whole foods. "Being a vegetarian doesn't mean you can't eat this and can't eat that," she said. "What it can mean is looking at a wider variety of foods."
Medford Food Co-op board President Jim Sims said Carter's experience, management skills and her ability to produce a strong balance sheet were very attractive.
Amarotico and Sims met Carter several months ago during a national cooperative convention for board presidents and general managers in the Twin Cities. "Everybody meets everybody and people talk and share as much information as they can," Sims said. "It's full and complete answers with no one holding their cards close to the chest, because there's everything to gain and nothing to lose."
A small group, including Carter, went out for pizza one evening, Sims said.
"We talked about the Medford Food Co-op. Anne was listening and it had an impact on her," he said. "She was really interested in an organization that has such great community support and motivated people."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness.