Not to be outdone by the supermarket wars surrounding it, the Honest Weight Food Co-Op experienced its own growth spurt this summer when it moved out of its somewhat cramped location on Central Avenue and into a full-sized, supermarket-style space on Watervliet Avenue. The new store has 18,000 square feet of retail space, double that of the old co-op.
And while the move was eagerly anticipated by many, there were members who worried that Honest Weight would lose some of its organic charm in its sprawling, gleaming new location.
“Some people expressed concern when we moved out of the old store that we would lose our character, but we’re really the same group of people, plus some additional staff,” says co-op communications leader Lily Bartels. While the new building is clean and shiny, things like the tables in the cafe—made from roof beams from an old Army depot in Rottterdam, with legs from an old family dairy farm in Brunswick—keep the store’s local, sustainable character intact.
If numbers tell a story, the repsonse to the new co-op has been a resounding hallelujah.
Project manager Lexa Juhre says the co-op management projected a 30 to 40 percent sales increase after the new store opened—and those numbers have been far surpassed.
Juhre says the group first looked at redesigning the hodgepodge Central Avenue location, but that was a daunting task, and the parking situation—too few spaces packed too tightly along the narrow drive adjacent to the store—couldn’t be improved. After a strategic planning process from 2003 to 2006, they decided to either relocate or build. There had been discussion of moving into several small locations, but the first priority was the full-service store.
“The co-op itself is really the people that are part of that community,” Juhre says. But when people think of the co-op, it’s the store that comes to mind, so the group realized it was important to have a solid flagship store before any further projects are pursued.
“Having everybody who is part of the co-op connect with one store is very different than having them connect with several different stores,” she says. “We haven’t ruled out doing that, but we need to do this first.”
Since its inception as a buying club in a basement on Washington Avenue in 1976, the Honest Weight community has grown continuously—first out of its small storefront on Quail Street, and then nearly bursting through the walls of its store on Central Avenue. After a decade of planning, the co-op finally inhabits its new, spacious location.
In 1976, Gary Goldberg offered his basement on Washington Avenue as the home of a buying club. Goldberg says his interest in healthy natural food began when his then-wife was battling cancer, went on a macrobiotic diet and was healed. The group bought wholesale foods such as rice and barley, pasta, peanut butter, butter and jelly.
“As a buying club it got bigger, and the people involved were very community minded,” he says. “It became a movement. You always want more people—don’t you think people want to grow?”
The co-op now has 9,200 members, with about 1,100 working members. Members buy a $100 share—which they can pay in installments—and are able to vote in elections and referenda, while receiving two percent off each purchase. Members can also work at the store for additional discounts. At the new store, the co-op employs over 100 regular full- and part-time employees.
“Eat Good Food” is the advice painted on the wall in the new cafe—next to the prepared foods department—with a larger kitchen to churn out more ready-to-eat goods, including made-to-order sandwiches, soups, salads, coffee, juices, hot foods, pizzas ready for the oven, and an array of baked goods.
Another big addition is a larger meat department. The co-op began as a strictly vegetarian establishment, but the membership voted to bring in meat in the 1990s. The new store not only sells meat, but a selection of local, wild seafood and processed items like smoked chicken and turkey sausage—which all must meet Honest Weight’s strict criteria.
“We were bracing ourselves for a lot of blowback, because it’s so in your face,” says Juhre. “But I think people appreciate having a large selection of farm-fresh meat and seafood.”
Goldberg says cheese has been popular since the days of the buying club. Honest Weight has become known for its huge selection of local and imported artisan cheeses—cow, sheep and goat, blue and brie with about 350 varieties, including over 100 local cheeses at any time.
The produce department carries as many local products as possible, with each food’s farm of origin on the label, and farmer profiles on the walls. The bulk section—the biggest in the northeast—allows customers to purchase as much or as little as they’d like, and adventurous eaters to economically try new foods. Oils, nut butters, dried fruits, soup mixes, grains, cereals, pastas, candy, flours and more can be found.
Nate Horowitz, now the membership coordinator, joined the co-op in the late ’80s when he was a college student a the University of Albany.
“I was interested in the food, but it was also kind of a cool place,” he says. Horowitz recalls steady expansion throughout the co-op’s history—first when the Quail Street store took over adjacent storefronts, a barber shop and two apartments, and later at Central Avenue.
“We had hired consultants who said it wasn’t big enough—and we found out, very quickly, that they were right,” he says.Within a year, the store had expanded into other parts of the building—a garage, an office, and a boathouse.
The new store had a soft opening June 19, and staff spent over a month working out kinks before the grand opening Aug. 8. The celebration—complete with live music from the Lucky Jukebox Brigade and other local acts, face painting, and bicycle-powered, fair-trade banana smoothies—drew old and new customers, members and vendors.
Shannon Mason gave samples of Cowbella yogurt, made on her family’s nearly 200-year-old farm in Amsterdam, New York. Their family started selling yogurt and butter in stores about three years ago, and Honest Weight was one of their first and best clients.
“This area has needed a place like this for a long time,” she says of the new store, noting that sales of both butter and yogurt have increased since it opened.
Rain Muhammed, of Albany, has been a member for about five years and buys nearly everything at the co-op. “Even my beer now,” she says. She adds that she feels “like a child in a candy store.”
“I thought I wouldn’t [like the new store], I was very apprehensive,” she says. She shed some tears during her last visit to the Central Avenue location. “But when opening day came, it was just delightful.”