Friendly City Food Co-op: Selling Community

Brent Finnegan -- May 7th, 2010

If you follow Harrisonburg news even occasionally, you’ve already heard about the Friendly City Food Co-Op (also known as FCFC, or FC2). Chances are you’ve been hearing about it for quite some time.

According to the timeline on FCFC’s website, the initial idea has connections to the Little Grill Collective’s short-lived Little Store, which opened in 2005. In 2006, the group organized with the intent to “develop a full-scale, natural and organic grocery store that put a premium on using local farmers and producers.” On June 25, 2007, David Reynolds reported in the Daily News-Record;

. . . planners of the Friendly City Food Co-op sought prospective owners to chip-in to a plan that would bring a new grocery store to Harrisonburg. The co-op would have similar priorities as Our Community Place and the Little Grill, said Sam Nickels, co-chair of the store, which he expects will open in 2008.

The projected opening date has been pushed back a number of times.

“Since we started this project, equipment costs (coolers, freezers, etc.) have gone up quite a bit in price, and loans have become much harder to get,” FCFC Board President Ben Sandel wrote in an email. “We never thought it would take this long to get the store open (which we now expect could happen as early as this December) but we’ve also refused to rush the process and risk jeopardizing the overall quality of the store and the long term viability.”

“I think the group in Harrisonburg is doing a great job, and has come a long way,” said Bruce Phlegar, General Manager of Roanoke Natural Foods, a similar grocery store that’s been a staple of Roanoke culture since the 1970s. “I’ve seen other co-ops take ten to twelve years to get as far as they have. I think they would already have the store open if it weren’t for the down economy.”

FCFC is in the final stages of a major fundraising initiative to reach $600,000 in member loans to finalize the lease on their store location this month. Adam Campbell, former outreach coordinator for the co-op, showed me around the “old Mick-or-Mack” building on the corner of Mason and Wolfe, where the co-op has signed a lease (although the lease is pending the completion of their current fundraising efforts).

Organizers initiated the Member Loan Campaign last September, and are intensifying efforts this month with event after event. Last month they passed the $400,000 mark. Now they are racing to close the gap with memberships (membership is $200) as well as several thousand-dollar loans from existing members and local businesses.

But what exactly is FCFC selling?

Some members describe the co-op as a healthy foods grocery store with a unique feeling. “When you walk in, it definitely has a different feeling,” said Campbell. “It’s not just friendlier, but it feels different. It’s kind of a flavor of Harrisonburg itself.”

To Campbell and others, it’s a way to ensure the availability of local, organic, and fairly-traded goods, or to regain some modicum of control over their neighborhood’s agricultural and economic future.

Benefits for members are spelled out in the membership information packet: an annual patronage refund, where a portion of the annual profit is returned to the members based on how much they spent; monthly member specials; quarterly “member appreciation days” on which everything is discounted for members; and so on.

But benefits do not appear to be the main draw. No one that I talked to said they joined for personal financial gain.

“The patronage check at the end of the year is not that much money,” said John Bryant, Director of Marketing for Roanoke Natural Foods. At Bryant’s store — one of only two official food co-ops in the entire state — owners can save money on staple items and special group purchases, or attend cooking classes for free, but he admits that’s not why most members have joined.

Bryant said his co-op has taken a leadership role on city-wide issues like recycling, and has provided meals to local organizations, such as PTAs. “We’re very active in the community. I know that’s not going to sell everyone [on membership], but it matters to the folks that really take an interest in their community.”

“For me, it’s a matter of ‘I own this and I have control over this,'” Phlegar said of his Roanoke co-op, referring to the “one member, one vote” governance structure of co-ops. “People wonder, ‘How can I make positive social and environmental change?’ Well, this is one way to work toward building a more equitable system. [Members join] partly because of the products we carry, but mainly because of what role we can play in leading the community toward positive change.”

Community improvement and social change may be abstract investments, but FCFC’s mission and determination has been winning over skeptics.

Last year, Jill Humphrey blasted FCFC on her blog for what she perceived as cold-shouldered elitism and insider secrecy surrounding the future location and projected opening date of the co-op. Deb Rhizal, then outreach coordinator for the co-op, immediately responded to address her concerns. Humphrey writes:

I eventually decided that it wasn’t very helpful to my community to sit around being grumpy. As a result, my family hosted the first of the co-op dinners as a forum for asking questions and throwing around ideas. I wanted the co-op board to be responsive and engage the community – in support and critique – as a way of fostering much needed excitement and energy.

I am now unabashedly supportive and extremely proud of not only the co-op board, but the efforts of my neighbors and friends. In just the last couple of months, this project has taken off and is now very close to realization. Amazing!

FCFC is growing in numbers. They signed a lease with a 30-day contingency for the Wolfe Street property last month. The group is now focusing all its efforts on closing the $150,000 gap before the May 20 deadline.

“I think we will get there, or be so close we will finish up a few days later and be able to proceed with the store planning, design and build-out,” writes Sandel. “If, however, we fall very short of the goal we will need to look at all aspects of the project to see how or if we go forward.”

Whether the co-op meets their membership and loan goals is up to the people of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. “We need members to have a store. It’s that simple,” Campbell said. “If everyone said, ‘Well, it sounds like a good idea, but I’ll wait to see what happens,’ we would never open, because we would never have that initial support.”

Campbell affirmed what I had come to understand about the co-op: that what they are really selling is an investment in the community. “The main benefit [of membership] is the store itself. It’s another piece of the downtown renaissance, and of supporting the local economy and community.”

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3 Responses to “Friendly City Food Co-op: Selling Community”

  1. Sam Nickels says:

    Ho yah. This article is already outdated. It mentions the co-op recently passed the $400,000 mark in the $600,000 member loan campaign. Well, today the co-op stands at $534,000 and we plan to wrap it up with over $600k in checks and commitments in the next 9 days. Impossible? Not when you consider that just 8 weeks ago we were at only $225,000.

    It’s very exciting to see how the community is coming together to make the food co-op vision a reality. It’s due to people like Jill Humphrey, quoted earlier, who just hosted a loan dinner. The owner-members came together and said, Yes, we’re going to make this work. They formed 6 committees and have been working on a number of efforts to their interests/likings. And it’s working.

    If you haven’t joined or made a loan yet, now is the time!

    See you at the finish line May 20….

    Sam Nickels
    Chair, Member Loan Campaign

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