Published: Mar 02, 2013 07:00 PM
Modified: Mar 02, 2013 06:28 PM
About a year and a half ago I heard that a food co-op like Weaver Street Market had opened in downtown Burlington. I hadnt been there since 1983 when doing energy audits on city buildings under state contract. So it was time to go back and check out the new co-op called Company Shops after Burlingtons original 1850s name as a railroad service center.
No one familiar with the Weaver Street Market stores in Orange County would be surprised by the Company Shops look, feel and merchandise. Theres a hot foods bar, glass cases featuring the instantly recognizable array of Weaver Street breads, and friendly rows of tables under big windows along the store front. Friday nights the store hosts free music. Operations manager Leila Wolfrum even referred to Weaver Street Market as their godfather. The big surprise is that this store opened in an unlikely spot, the devastatingly empty downtown, during our Great Recession, by a group of people with no grocery experience but determined to bring good quality local and organic food to what some of them described as a food desert.
Unlike Weaver Street Market with its almost built-in constituency, the road for Company Shops has been uphill all the way. After two years theyre gaining steam; with over 2,600 owners now they plan to be in the black this year, less than two years after opening. Theyre breaking traditional boundaries having recently hosted 150 members of the Burlington Chamber of Commerce at an after-hours event. They plan to soon begin busing in loads of seniors from some of Burlingtons many retirement homes to introduce them to the store.
A core group of Company Shops originators found each other shopping at the Carrboro Farmers Market, in various Weaver Street locales and through their common interests, but outside Burlington, according to board member Eric Henry.
Henry was a project pollinator, as Wolfrum described him. A native Burlingtonian and owner of TS Designs, a T-shirt printing company also in Burlington, Eric is a staunch advocate of Business Alliance of Living Local Economies (BALLE) and has invested $15,000 into Company Shops.
While my visit was on a cold Sunday afternoon when only a few shoppers and staff were present, their vibrant enthusiasm for this place was palpable. The first shopper I interviewed, Brett Evans, attends Elon University and is a vegan who lives with two other Elon vegans. Brett told me many of his fellow students drive the five miles to Company Shops for lunch as well as groceries and the sense of community there.
Mr .and Mrs. Rod Smith as they formally introduced themselves while in the check out line may represent a slightly different demographic, but their cart was loaded with a case of Kambucha Tea, North Carolina craft beers and brewing supplies. Mr. Smith works at Lab Corp which has brought over 3,000 workers into formerly deserted buildings downtown. Mrs. Smith was ecstatic they no longer had to drive to Atlanta to stock up on BPA- free, and MSG-free foods.
Chats with store clerk Megan Sharpe and the cheese guy Jonathan Whitlach reflected that same optimism and commitment to making this store work as not just a business but a springboard for downtown revitalization and community connection as well as their own careers.
Gestation for this ambitious and risky venture was long and tortuous according to both Eric and marketing manager Elizabeth Read. In 2006 Eric and Dr. Charlie Syndor an ophthalmologist and pasture-beef rancher (Braeburn Farms) in Snow Camp, started talking about a developing a Weaver Street-like store for Alamance County. After a year of talk, Eric told me, they bankrolled Melissa Frey, Chatham Market progenitor, to help get it off the ground. Burlington business law firm Wishart, Norris Henninger and Pittman whose paralegal was an early board member, helped write their by-laws. A grassroots community effort all around.
Along with a few other stalwarts, none with grocery experience, the nascent board hired Cooperative Development Services out of Minneapolis to give them a Yea or Nay. The study said it was a go for Alamance Countys first natural foods co-op grocery. Off they went.
Scraping together about 500 early owner memberships, angel investors the Hyke family, who bought them the old downtown A&P building along with some risk-taking social entrepreneurs and a bank loan, this board raised the cash to renovate and stock the building. The group also, according to Eric Henry, got a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan guarantee for 80 percent of the projects value and had a friendly local banker in Tom Manning who also chairs the Alamance County Board of Commissioners. Company Shops opened five years after those first conversations.
So on your way to the mountains, to Greensboro or just for a change of pace, wander west those 30 miles and check out the newest and in some ways bravest foray into the world of the local cooperative economy at Company Shops.