Weaver Street Market in North Carolina are by far the biggest consumer food co-op I’ve visited, with a total of three natural grocery stores plus a large Food House where they bake, cook and process fresh foods for all three locations, plus supply to a handful of other local co-ops. Having opened with just one store in 1988, the co-op has expanded steadily, and has ambitious plans to open three more in the area within the next few years.
The Food House is like an enormous version of Unicorn’s new commercial kitchen (which felt so big when I last saw it, now maybe not!) and it was exciting to see how professional and large scale an operation it was, with an automated system for orders and production, soup kettles you could almost take a bath in, and even a place for a flour silo.
Like all the co-ops I’ve visited, Weaver Street’s business (and to a large extent, their growth) is driven by a variety of social and environmental goals, in their case to “Make healthy eating accessible, tasty, and fun; to drive the growth of local and sustainable foods; to invigorate downtowns; and to use net zero energy, create zero waste, and promote responsible packaging”.
Weaver Street have recently developed an exciting direct trade initiative between themselves, a wine producer co-op in Argentina, and food co-ops across the whole of the US, that is having a big impact on the lives of 500 very small scale organic wine producers. By importing La Riojana wine directly, solely for sale in food co-ops, they are cutting out the middle man and meaning the producers and consumers get a really great deal (an excellent Malbec for about £4.50) The food co-ops pay a FairTrade premium which, to begin with at least, will be split between getting the producers organic certification and helping construct a new hospital.
It was really nice to meet the people responsible, as I first heard about this initiative two months and thousands of miles away in Seattle at the start of my trip, where Central Co-op were very excited about receiving their first delivery!
It’s hoped that this partnership could be the starting point for a new wave of US/international co-op to co-op trade relationships, built on trust and solidarity. In fact, it’s the same Argentine winery from which the UK’s Co-op chain sources its FairTrade wines, and it was their good relationship with The Co-op that convinced La Riojana that inter co-op trading was the way forward.
It was pretty inspiring to see the ambition within the co-op, and see how neatly a very strong framework of values fits together with a very business-like approach to growth and expansion.