Magiera is president of the board of the People’s Food Co-op, and Angie Voiles was the Kerrytown area store’s interim manager–until this past spring, when the board voted to give her the job full-time.
Voiles describes her “greatest strength” as her “deep, deep commitment to this co-operative and this community.” First hired in 2002, she has worked at most jobs in the store, and her hiring should help stabilize the member-owned business, which has been without a permanent manager for more than two years.
The co-op, which employs about eighty people at the store and adjoining Cafe Verde, is in its fifth year of a sales drought; last year it lost $83,000 (before taxes), and it lost another $78,000 in the first quarter of this year. A former employee notes that the second quarter that began in April is usually a “strong one,” but “that [loss] would be a lot to make back.”
Alarmed board members have taken action, recently bringing in, for four months, co-op consultant Luke Schell. Magiera says Schell gave them excellent advice on choosing and displaying products and offered high praise for the core staff, which boosted morale. He was not hired to propose a change of course, Magiera says.
Along with redesigning the bulk food and spice sections, the co-op recently addressed complaints about limited daytime parking by introducing a curbside pickup service. Suggested by longtime staffer and new marketing manager Ken Davis, it rolled out in May. Judging from shoppers’ comments, “Folks are really excited about it,” says Voiles.
One of the few survivors of Ann Arbor’s counter-culture era, the co-op started as a buying club and opened its first storefront, on S. State St., in 1971. For its first three decades, members could do hands-on work–cutting cheese, bagging nuts–to receive a discount, a sociable activity that increased their sense of belonging. That ended in 2004 due to declining interest and concerns about labor laws and liability. Further fraying members’ connection with the store, the co-op discontinued its newsletter a few years ago to save money.
“I’ve been shopping there since the Seventies, when it was a destination point,” recalls newly elected board member and chef Greg Upshur. “When I was doing a bread class at Schoolcraft [College], I would go all the way to the co-op to get my flour.” But, he says, “younger people don’t understand” how vital co-ops were in creating the natural foods movement.
The fear is that the PFC might go the way of the forty-one-year-old East Lansing Food Co-op, which closed last year after a Whole Foods store opened nearby. Former board member Linda Diane Feldt has criticized recent co-op leaders for being not being more forthcoming about its mounting economic woes.
Magiera acknowledges the criticism. “There wasn’t a direct communication to members that there’s a struggle going on,” he says, for “fear of striking alarmism.” He says he’s working to improve matters through, for example, increasing online communications to members.
“I think things have to change for us to survive,” he says.
In the co-op’s April board meeting, treasurer Bruce Curtis (yes, the same Bruce Curtis as in story above) announced that he was preparing a cash-flow chart for the upcoming annual meeting. As reported in the board minutes, it “shows that if we do nothing, we will be out of money in four years.”
Only one visitor was present to hear the warning–and according to Feldt, the annual meeting, too, was poorly attended.