by Bruce A. Smith
Shoppers this week at the Mountain Community Co-op in Eatonville were treated to a little extra gaiety from the volunteers and staff.
“Happy Birthday,” one volunteer shouted out to me as I walked into the cozy little shop on Carter St in Eatonville, and ushered me towards the “birthday party” celebration – a table filled with samples of organic, gluten-free granola and accompanied by some free organic coffee that was deep, dark and delicious.
In addition, members received a 10% birthday discount, while regular shoppers received an 8% one.
“It’s our birthday. The co-op is seven year old,” added Margaret Franich, chief of the volunteers, and as a result is the co-op’s de facto store manager.
Margaret is also the co-op’s founder and a current board member, and she spoke with the Mountain News between supervising volunteers and filling wholesale orders with vendors.
“We really proud of our little co-op and how far it’s come,” Margaret said.
Margaret expanded on her thoughts and described how the co-op has grown both in the numbers of members and volunteers, but also is experiencing a deeper financial stability with a continued increase in sales through each year – quite an accomplishment in our sour economy.
“Overall, I would say that the co-op is more solid as an organization and as a store,” said Franich.
In addition, the greater stability allows the co-op to set its sights on new projects.
“There’s a new energy in the co-op, particularly with some of the new volunteers – it’s great,” said Margaret, who is directing this vibrancy towards some of the strategic goals of the co-op, especially in the area of building a healthier and more stabile community throughout Eatonville.
The first manifestation of these larger goals is the development of a community garden. Franich said that a separate committee has been formed to bring this idea into fruition, but the general goal of a community garden is to have a substantive piece of property near the co-op dedicated to communal gardening – where neighbors who do not have garden space, such as apartment dwellers, can obtain a plot of land to grow their own food.
Franich would also like to see community organizations have a section in the garden, such as local food banks, to provide healthy, organic foods to the people of Eatonville.
Also, Franich sees the community garden as an educational opportunity – a place where the people of Eatonville can learn different organic gardening techniques.
“There are lots of different ways to grow food organically – there’s not just one way,” said Margaret.
In essence, she sees the project as a kind of experimental garden, where people can test new ideas and learn innovative techniques, such as developing locally adapted crops, explore methods of low-cost irrigation, and discover strategies for safe pest control, especially slugs.
Adding to the co-op’s broader perspective is Debra Grant, the newly elected President of the board of directors.
“I have been involved since its inception,” said Debra, “and despite many skeptics, I have watched it grow and expand and unite a community in a truly cooperative manner. Members come from all walks in life, each with their own ideas for a co-op.”
Seven years ago, the Co-op started just as a buying club and has evolved to offer a variety of items, from fair trade cleaning products to gardening needs, besides organic, healthy foodstuffs.
“I see the Co-op becoming more of a hub for finding out information on natural foods, nutrition, special dietary needs, organic gardening, composting, beekeeping, and on and on – as far as the skills and expertise of our members take us,” said Ms. Grant. “Our next step of a community garden is an example of how those goals are being met.
Debra also said she would like the co-op to offer more workshops, building upon the initial offerings of how to grow garlic, beekeeping skills, Vitamin D benefits, which were well received last year.
“I can foresee many more!” Debra exclaimed.
She also has visions of immediate practicality, such as expanding the size of the store and being able to provide more choices.
“As we expand, we can offer fresh juices, sandwiches, soups, etc. for quick healthy eating,” Debra said, adding that the co-op could evolve into a significant place for local artisans to display and sell their work.
Developing some of the details of this project has been one of the tasks of the annual retreat the co-op recently conducted for board members.
Balancing Debra’s projections for the future, Margaret cited several projects brought into fruition last year that attest to the vitality of the co-op.
Uppermost is the establishment of a retail store in co-op property on the corner of Carter and Washington Sts. A single-story home that had often been used as a learning center, the structure is now the home of Black Star Feed, a retail enterprise selling organic and healthy pet and animal feeds.
“It is truly a welcome addition,” said Margaret. “It’s great. You can shop at the co-op for food for your dinner, and then go next door and get your pet food, too!”
Also, the co-op has developed some unusual and exciting relationships with several of its vendors.
One has offered to conduct a “store design” project, so the interior of the co-op may see a new layout in the near future – even as it plans to expand.
Another vendor has developed a comprehensive sale promotion package for the co-op. It’s called “Healthy Advantage,” and the wholesaler discounts selected products for a month, arranges flyers and other marketing materials. In general, this gives the co-op the means to offer a varied and substantive sales program.
“It’s been great,” said Margaret, adding that program has allowed the co-op to maintain its revenue stream but offering the power of sales promotions to attract new customers.
Margaret said that the co-op advertises the new month’s sales in local papers and on its web site at the beginning of the month, and by the second week the sales are active. Featured are many health products and supplements.
“It’s when I get my Vitamin D!” said Margaret.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of growth in the co-op is the current level of vegetables and produce available. Being able to offer fresh, organic produce has long been a bane of the co-op, as the necessity for cold-storage and walk-in coolers has limited the amount of produce the co-op has been able to offer.
Now, however, the co-op is overcoming some of those impediments.
“We are offering more produce and have it in stock for longer periods of time,” said Margaret.
One of the best testaments to the power of the co-op and its ever-deepening volunteer base is how the co-op weathered the recent snow and ice storm. Margaret said that she and volunteers placed blankets and sleeping bags over the freezer cases and were able to keep the foods at temperature and save most of the frozen product.
“We did better than Safeway and Fred Meyer,” boasted Franich, saying that most commercial freezer cases can’t be insulated easily in times of power outages, and having back-up generators is a costly proposition.
Further, Franich said that the co-op lost power at night, but had electricity during the day and didn’t have to curtail operations.
Margaret also had warm praise for the larger community.
“I want to acknowledge all those guys who cleared the roads – there were hundreds of trees down, and folks just went out with their chain saws and cut them up and pulled them to the side. They got the roads clear. No one had to tell them to do it, it was real community responsibility in action. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to get to the co-op,” she said.
Along those lines, Margaret also touted the position the co-op has developed in the social fabric of the community. The co-operative was a linchpin for the garden tour last spring, selling tickets and widely – and passionately – promoting the event.
But the co-op is also a place of vital socialization for many of its members and those who shop there.
“I have met so many wonderful people by helping at the co-op. Everyone there is enjoying meeting new people and working together,” Margaret said.
As always, the co-op is open to the general public, Monday through Saturday.
© 2012 Mountain News-WA