The Crow Wing Food Co-Op, an early leader in the now widely seen move toward organic and locally produced food, has been part of the Brainerd area since 1979.
But many food stores have jumped on the organic bandwagon in recent years. That competition, along with other financial challenges, has the co-op on Washington Street in Brainerd struggling.
Amy Gray Ellingson, co-op board president, said the co-op has undergone growing pains and faced challenges from the recession.
Last year, the food co-op moved about a block from its home of 24 years on Washington Street to the former Country Time Cafe at Washington and Eighth streets. The move, long sought, also brought about changes.
Ellingson said the move was fueled by demand and the bigger store was able to offer a larger selection. The store has organic and whole-grain foods, hormone-free dairy and meat products, ecological and hypo-allergenic cleaning supplies among other products.
It’s a place where the co-op knows the farmers producing the inventory by name and can tell customers just where the lettuce, eggs, dairy and beef products and others are grown. For the co-op, the move made sense as the demand for locally grown and organic food is growing. But it also may have magnified existing financial management flaws that weren’t so apparent when the co-op was in its former location, which offered lower overhead.
Since the move, the co-op has a new manager in Steven McKnight as of March and greater accounting oversight with the board. Ellingson said the changes were beneficial and the co-op is now current with its vendors and other payments for the first time in years.
The co-op depended on its own finances and didn’t take out a loan for the move and Ellingson said she now thinks that was a detriment because the funds were needed to help the co-op make the move to the next level for its store. Ellingson said the co-op subsequently did get a loan and has now been looking at ways to increase its revenues and gain more membership support.
The co-op initially formed to give individuals buying power for items that weren’t readily available. It grew from that core group that worked together to promote locally grown produce.
Ellingson said the mission wasn’t changed with the move, but some of that sense of community may have as new members joined driven by a newfound health consciousness for what they fed their families and a movement toward whole foods. Those members may not feel the same connection to the co-op that drove the other long-time members, Ellingson said. And she said the co-op was evolving to be run more as a business, which was a must to get the finances in order.
The co-op has to be a viable business if it wants to support the community as it has for the last 30 years and as members want to for the next 30 years, Ellingson said.
“We are in a tough spot right now financially,” she said.
Ellingson, herself part of the more recent influx to the co-op, said she’s not sure there is as much cohesion with the mix of old and new members — a challenge and an opportunity. The co-op continues to face greater competition from area grocers, who now carry their own organic sections and one looming from the proposed Costco store in Baxter.
For Ellingson, it would be a loss if one of the entities that pioneered a concentration on buying food from area farmers and growers and with an emphasis away from industrial farming with its hormones and chemicals were to be lost now just as its popularity is growing.
“The co-op is local business epitomized,” she said. “Being a member of the co-op enables us to be part of it.”
Ellingson said staff is knowledgeable on what people with specialized food requirements need, such as gluten free diets, and is there to help customers with purchases and even recipes.
Co-op members are owners of the store but customers don’t have to be members to shop there. The co-op currently has about 600 members. They pay an upfront cost, which recently increased from $60 to $80, to join. A plan to have a yearly renewal fee as a way to generate revenue was discontinued along with a daily discount of 5 percent. Members continue to get a discount one day a month along with savings on products the co-op is able to buy and pass on, as well as special orders and discounts on co-op sponsored events. Ellingson is working to development discounts with other business partnerships.
In addition to the locally grown food, natural and organic offerings, the co-op has bulk food items, which gives customers a chance to take advantage of the organization’s purchasing power and try new foods without worry of waste.
Items like vanilla are available in bulk, so customers can purchase as much or as little as they need.
“Buying in bulk is a great way to save money,” Ellingson said, noting she’s done that herself particularly when trying new recipes that call for items she may not have readily on hand such as whole wheat flour or flax or rice.
“It’s a great way to try new foods,” Ellingson said.
And she said the co-op is able to pass savings on produce to customers when growers have excess products. The co-op also helps people, who may be buying food through food programs like WIC, or others who need information on preparing whole or bulk foods.
“People are more concerned about were their food is coming from,” Ellingson said, noting the number of local food growers the co-op works with for dairy, eggs and meat, sunflower oil and other products, even soap and skin care.
To survive for coming years, the co-op is going to need community support of its own.
“We sell lots of grass-fed beef, cruelty free organic chickens, eggs and milk,” Ellingson said. “We need people to get back in shopping. The economic situation has been challenging for us.”
Ellingson suggested a way for consumers to help keep their locally owned businesses operating is illustrated in a 3/50 Project, which asks consumers to spend $50 a month at three of those locally owned stores. In turn, that support flows out to others, including all those local growers, Ellingson said.
“We support a lot of local businesses.”
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RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852. Follow on Twitter @Dispatchbizbuzz.