The Astoria Co-op has outgrown its pants — again. When I first arrived on the Peninsula 15 years ago, it was a suitably funky place reminiscent of the ‘60s on the corner of 14th and Duane in downtown Astoria. (Now the old co-op building houses Déjà Vu Thrift Shop, the used goods store operated by The Harbor, which support survivors of sexual and domestic violence.)
There was a balcony upstairs where you could sit with your hummus-and-sprouts-on-whole-wheat sandwich and survey the activity below; a wonderful selection of jewelry — beautiful earrings from Nepal — and cosmetics in one of the front corners. (The savvy purchasing agent was Donna Quinn, now host of KMUN’s “Talk of our Town.”) There were other surprises tucked away: baskets of hand-knit hats and colorful socks; local honey; vats of tofu.
Just walking in took me back to my days on the Big Island of Hawaii in the early ‘70s when friends and I got together to purchase organic produce and other items in bulk from Hilo, an hour’s drive away. There was no other way to get organic and health food supplies at the time. We’d take turns gathering up everyone’s requests; someone would place the order; someone else would pick-up it up; then we’d all gather at someone’s home and weigh things out — distributing flour, nuts, granola, dried fruit, peanut butter, etc.
Looking back now I see that it was part of the glue that held us together — a community ritual that gave those of us interested in good quality food a chance to talk to one another about all manner of things. We looked forward to co-op distribution day — it punctuated our month.
Now, of course, anyone can wander into Safeway, QFC or Trader Joe’s and buy just about any old odd organic thing: kimchi, gluten-free Norwegian crackers, grass-fed beef. But there couldn’t be more differences between these chains and our very own co-op.
The Astoria Co-op is similar to our home-made buying club but with tons more benefits. I often see friends and neighbors there and kibitz about the weather, political or otherwise. The co-op supports the local production of food. Local food purchased locally creates a smaller carbon footprint. (Food transportation is a big carbon-waste hog.) Local farmers means there is increased support for regional soil enrichment.
And then there’s the local spending effect. Tim Mitchell, Northwest Earth Institute’s Choices for Sustainable Living, says, “A dollar spent at a locally-owned store is usually spent six to 15 times before it leaves the community. From $1, you create $5 to $14 in value within that community,” www.blueoregon.com/2005/11/buying_local_an. (Our community spans both side of the river, despite the arbitrary state line.) The store provides employment for local staff — so in every possible way, having a local co-op is a win-win situation.
As co-op marketing director Zetty Nemlowill says, “We currently have 28 staff members and expect to have about 65 when we open the new store. There will be more checkout lanes, more great food to stock, a greatly expanded deli, plus a fresh meat and seafood counter. We provide good jobs with a living wage — our average is $16/hour — plus health benefits.”
Zetty explained, “The co-op sources directly with about 30 food/beverage producers from our coastal region. We work with almost 100 vendors, which is unique for a grocery store. It’s not always easiest to source from so many independent companies, but the benefits to the local economy and fresh quality food totally make it worth it.” As the co-op grows, these great benefits increase too — it’s called a positive feedback loop.
So what’s happening exactly? The co-op is building a new facility at Millpond, 23rd Street and Marine Drive in Astoria, the former site of the Astoria Plywood Mill. The vacant commercial site is near the Columbia River, Riverwalk, Columbia Memorial Hospital and Astoria Aquatic Center.
The larger store will accommodate more parking — 50 spaces! — and, as Zetty says, more space for deli items, more produce, a meat and seafood counter, and an indoor/outdoor eating area. The current store is 2,100 square feet and the new space will almost triple to 7,500 square feet. (To keep current on the construction plans, check in at either the website http://www.astoria.co-op/wp/ or Facebook page: www.facebook.com/astoriaco-opgrocery.)
There are still many gateposts to pass before the dream is a reality. The other day I had a chance to chat with Matthew Stanley, co-op manager, to talk about the business side of things. “We’ve been working on this for several years. We started at revenue under a million and now we’ve grown our sales to $4 million a year. We need a new facility.
“Our current building was never meant to be a grocery store. Everything we sell — over 25,000 items — must come in through the front doors.” I never thought about the fact that the current co-op has no back entrance for freight. Not only is the parking lot too small for current customers, but imagine delivery trucks trying to negotiate it! Then there’s the office — so small that staff are stacked on top of each other and if Matt wants to have a private conversation with a staff member, he has to take them outside. The new building will be a properly and efficiently designed grocery with a larger kitchen, and a delivery bay — that in itself will be a cost saver.
The co-op has many members, like me, who live in Washington. But because of the way the co-op must file a license, they cannot solicit funds from us Washington residents when they open the capital campaign in the fall. (For more information about the move, members can attend the Sept. 17 annual meeting.)
“The multi-state filing was just too costly for us, around $20,000 to $30,000” Matt said. He and I were sitting at the picnic table in the shade in front of the store, watching customers jockey for parking spaces. “We were advised simply to file in Oregon, which means we can only collect capital funds from Oregonians.”
Even from the Washington side of the river, it’s exciting to watch a local business as successful as the co-op, and to understand how many ways it benefits our community. As Zetty says, “I was born in Astoria and have been a co-op shopper ever since I was a kid. Food is such a critical part of my life because I’m not only nourishing myself but also my husband and three kids. I love cooking with anything that’s fresh and local because it’s healthy, delicious, and it’s good for the planet when food doesn’t have to travel so far on a truck.”
So here’s a tip of the hat to the Astoria Co-op’s founding mamas and papas: Randy Puseman, McLaren Innes, Stewart Bell, Josie Peper, Richard Hurley, Carol Newman, and John and Carol Folk. And three cheers for the current management team for continuing to nurture and build on their vision.