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Make Our Garden Grow

 The Honest Weight Food Co-op strives toward an ambitious expansion in scope and size, while remaining dedicated to its original mission

By Josh Potter

Photos by Alicia Solsman

Lynne Lekakis sits in the small café space tucked behind shelving racks and glass coolers at the back of Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op. On the table in front of her are plans for the brand-new, state-of-the-art facility the business has decided to construct, and around her is the plan’s living justification. Patrons sip fair-trade coffee and graze on vegetarian fare from the lunch buffet, while member workers sort plastic bags and prepare signs for the produce department. Shoppers check information posted on a bulletin board, while employees travel up and down a set of stairs that lead to administrative offices. The din renders the space less a café and more like a bazaar.

“For a grocery store,” says Lekakis, the co-op’s Facilities Committee chair, “this is pretty small.” But as a cooperative grocery store, based on its income bracket, Honest Weight has just earned a “large” designation from the National Cooperative Grocers Association. With nearly 1,000 members and more than $10 million in annual sales, the co-op has defied both mainstream business practice and its founders’ expectations. It has become an Albany mainstay and an example of what can be achieved using the cooperative business model.

Faced with a growing clientele, ongoing parking and loading issues, and the imminent expiration of its lease at 484 Central Ave.—the 6,000-square-foot property the business has occupied since 1995—the co-op spent three years searching for local sites. In keeping with its fully democratic decision-making process, members voted to purchase the lot at 100 Watervliet Ave. in October 2007. In June of last year, they decided to raze the existing structure and, in January, approved plans for the new 30,000-square-foot facility. While the move is essential in maintaining what business the co-op already conducts, members hope that, after 32 years, the new headquarters will provide its community with the resources to wage a stronger campaign of health, sustainability and civic engagement.

“We decided we’d like to be a bigger voice in the community, do more education programs, and live our code a little bit more,” says Lekakis. The self-proclaimed “Loan Ranger,” she’s spearheading a program that encourages members to make low-interest loans toward the construction of the new building with the conviction that, in this economy, community investments yield more tangibly and reliably than do financial-growth investments.

If all goes according to plan, the co-op sees this move as its big coming-out.

From its inception as a buying club in the fall of 1976, the Honest Weight Food Co-op has largely operated on an ad hoc basis, whereby the goals of the company never exceed the needs of its member/owners. Gary and Sharon Goldberg started the club in the basement of their Albany home on Washington Avenue with the goal of obtaining healthy bulk items at an affordable price. Alan McClintock became involved in 1978 and, three decades later, still conducts orientation sessions for new members.

“The root of it really started with a group of people who wanted to rediscover their relationship with what it is they were eating,” says McClintock. “We were interested in bulk grains and the stores that existed locally didn’t have what we wanted.”

With orders overwhelming the Goldberg basement, members decided to open a storefront that would serve members and the general public alike. In spring 1977, the fully incorporated co-op opened its doors at 112 Quail St. As demand increased, the store deepened its relationship with its supplier, the Hudson Valley Federation of Food Co-ops, an organization that connected local farmers with the many buying clubs and cooperative markets that were popping up around the region at the time. The store began carrying a small amount of produce, dairy products, oils, nuts and fruit juice. To this day, the store maintains many of these connections to local organic and nonorganic growers.

“You have to realize,” McClintock says, “that the founders and early supporters were a little uneasy about business models and the like. Initially we had hoped that we’d have a store where all of the labor needs could be met by member labor . . . and we’ve really had to learn how to do this.”

The co-op’s early effort was, no doubt, part of an emerging food movement, but while organizing bodies like the Hudson Valley Federation existed, there was no set operating model for a business of this kind. In 1978, members broke down a brick wall to make space, and in 1986 they took over a former barbershop in the adjacent building. As business expanded, members ran the store on used and salvaged appliances.

“It’s amazing—the little details that go into making a grocery store—because we’ve been piecing stuff together for years,” Lekakis says. “We didn’t buy anything new; it’s all copped.”

“I wanted to support our store,” says McClintock, “but I didn’t have a sense that we’d exist five years down the road, let alone 30-plus years. It’s all happened very organically.”

The late ’80s and early ’90s proved to be a difficult time for cooperative grocers across the country, and many co-ops buckled under the advancing pressure of corporate America. But while corporations thrive insofar as they can accrue profit through the focused decision making of an executive body, the Honest Weight co-op endured through its commitment to a modest-scale, member labor (still rare, even among other co-ops), and an often-laborious decision-making process. With their $100 investments, the members became eligible to work a number of hours in exchange for a discount, and each working member in good standing carried a vote. Member committees voted on all aspects of business practice, from the decision to stock coffee and meat, to the decision to buy the property at 118 Quail St. in 1991, and eventually the current store on Central in 1995. Between 1995 and 2003, sales nearly doubled, the store added a deli and a café, and began using a computerized checkout system. Growth finally demanded a real strategic plan for the company’s future.

“We [currently] have well over 5,000 shareholders and almost a thousand working members,” McClintock says. “We don’t necessarily all see things in the same light, but we’re all very committed to supporting Honest Weight . . . because, as co-op members, we are in effect the cooperative.”

While financial growth meant that the co-op’s business model was sustainable and that the scope of the business’ mission could be broadened, membership growth indicated that real needs were being met by outreach efforts—but also that reaching consensus on strategic planning might become more difficult.

“We certainly en gage in lively debates,” Lekakis wrote in a recent co-op newsletter. One debate concerned the facility’s new location. Although the Strategic Planning Committee considered sites in Troy, Glenmont, Colonie and Latham, Lekakis says, “What we really wanted to do was achieve a place we could use as an anchor store in Albany.” The group tried to be sensitive to plans for other area co-ops, such as the Troy Pioneer Market, which it sees as complimentary rather than competitive. It was also committed to remaining urban and accessible.

The accessibility of the new site remains a point of contention. Russell Ziemba, a floor manager in the grocery department who’s been a member since 1978, says that when he tells people about the location at the corner of Watervliet Avenue and Watervliet Avenue Extension, everyone always asks, “Where?”

The location is within a mile of the current store, but in an industrial zone slightly off the beaten path. It’s farther for the average bicyclist, and two and a half blocks from the Central Avenue bus routes.

Lekakis says that the co-op is in communication with CDTA about running the No. 2 bus, which does stop at the new location on weekdays, on Sundays. More important, says Lekakis, is the location’s proximity to the highway.

“Everything possible was sacrificed to maximize the huge off-street parking lot,” says Ziemba, who echoes many members’ complaints that the new store disproportionately favors those who drive. Lekakis, however, claims that this was a necessary consideration, given that 90 percent of the store’s patrons drive. “We don’t necessarily love that that’s how people get here, but that’s how people get here.”

In the end, the site met all of the Facilities Committee’s criteria, and members voted to secure the lot. A second debate ensued when it was determined that the existing structure did not satisfy the committee’s plans.

“We all wanted to keep [the building] to begin with,” says Lekakis, “but we were all convinced that it wasn’t the smartest thing to do by the end. It’s an ugly little structure—cement block, no insulation, very little that was finished, and the whole warehouse had no wall covering on it. If you look carefully at the literature, it did say there was a possibility for demolition . . . [and, given the state of the structure,] it’s not like there would be a lot to go in the landfill anyway.”

Wherever possible, the co-op is trying to reuse materials from the soon-to-be-demolished building. The old joists from the roof will be used as trellises, and much of the ground-up concrete foundation will be used to reinforce fencing and as the underlay for the pavement. In fact, demolishing the old structure gave the co-op the opportunity to make the new store more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. The building aims to nearly double Albany’s R-9 building code requirement and become LEED certified. Second-floor windows will maximize natural light, and, while the current plan does not include a full green roof, which would host native vegetation, Lekakis says they’re building the roof strong enough that they can phase one in down the road. Additionally, the committee hopes to obtain grant money from NYSERDA after they complete their energy audit.

Amid plans to move and expand, Lekakis says they were very conscious not to make the new facility too large. “One of our main criteria was to promote a sense of community. We didn’t want to lose the feel of knowing one another by name.”

Despite his objections to the plan, Ziemba, too, holds this commitment to community as the co-op’s chief concern. “The co-op has always been so much more than a food store,” says Ziemba. But he fears that new members were too quick to support the plan and didn’t give proper consideration to the isolating effect that this move away from Albany’s urban center and proximity to compatible businesses would have on the community.

What Ziemba and other opponents hoped to accomplish in a single facility, the Strategic Planning Committee hopes to address in future expansion plans. “Eventually we’d like to pod-out,” Lekakis says, “to have little stores in underserved neighborhoods where cars are not the main mode. In order to do that, we need to have one place we can control as a distribution center. We’re so much in the middle of this one, it’s hard to think about the next step.”

Honest Weight education coordinator Karisa Centanni is eager for the range of programs and services that will become viable when the new facility is up and running. According to Lekakis, hiring someone to foster education and community outreach as their sole responsibility was the first step in the co-op’s new phase.

“My job description entails empowering our members and customers with information that helps them live healthier lives,” Centanni explains. “That’s food and nutrition education, basic cooking skills, food preparation and storage skills. Bringing all those things to fruition enhances the overall health of the community.”

Currently, these programs jockey for space in what little room is available at the Central Avenue location. The community room hosts everything from cooking instruction and baby-wearing classes to knitting, reflexology and chair message. Despite growing interest, each event has been capped at 15 participants, a striking limitation to programs like the Natural Family Support Group that, with children, could easily double or triple that number.

The new building will feature a teaching kitchen, complete with a stove, oven, refrigeration and canning equipment.

“The space will be open to the public,” Centanni says, and she looks forward to a time when friends can come in, purchase a large quantity of fresh produce and collectively can for the rest of the year. Lactic-acid fermentation courses may even be available, depending on interest. “We are a member-owned grocery store. I kind of let people tell me what they want to see, and then organize it.”

A second community room will host noncooking courses, and a veranda will connect the two spaces. There are even plans to use the space for musical events. “Things have grown,” she says, “which is a really positive thing, and we want to provide a space that’s comfortable, clear, safe, and suitable to make cool things happen.” More than a grocery store, Centanni hopes the facility will “become another venue for cultural, educational and social activities.”

To make the new building and broader community goals a reality, the latest challenge the co-op faces is one of funding. Rather than going straight to the banks, the business is trying to stay as true to its member-owned identity as possible by asking shareholders to collectively generate $2 million in loans.

Lekakis has put together a “cash cow” committee to contact every single co-op member and ask for a minimum of $1,000. The loan’s interest rate is generally low, variable and ultimately up to the loaner. The committee is asking for a 1 to 4 percent rate for loans below $10,000, and 1 to 6 percent for loans above $10,000. Maturity revolves between 5 and 10 years, and is similarly negotiable. The remaining 75 percent of the construction costs ($5 to $6 million) will be funded with loans from the State Employees Federal Credit Union. As of press time, the effort was nearly one-quarter complete.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever asked our shareholders for money,” Lekakis says, “beyond the $100 share. Nonprofits do it all the time, but I was a little nervous about having to do this at this time.”

The state of the current economy makes such an effort something of a gamble.

“The most difficult issue at this time is what’s happening in the economy,” McClintock says. “When we undertook this path, we didn’t have the foreknowledge that things were going to be quite this bad. I’ve given my support to the new site and approval of the plan, but it certainly couldn’t be happening at a more difficult time.”

Board treasurer John Godfrey, however, sees the issue differently. “Conventional wisdom,” he wrote in a recent co-op newsletter, “would make one think it is not a good time to do any major investments; however, this is the best time.” Godfrey lists competitive prices on construction bids, plummeting prices on raw materials and sales that have increased 15 percent since last year as indicators that this is the right time for such a project.

As far as member receptivity to the loan program is concerned, Lekakis says it’s been mixed. “Those who took a big hit [in this economy] and weren’t prepared to take a big hit are not going to make a loan. But those who took a little hit speak very positively about keeping the money local and watching the investment.” While the limited growth potential on such an investment would deter many from taking part, the low risk and immediate, local return is attractive in this type of community.

In fact, it’s this financial ethos that has driven the cooperative from its inception and has arguably allowed it to weather similarly trying times in the national economy. “I really do think that cooperatives, per se, can be a very important option during dire economic times,” McClintock says, as both the risk and return are shared equally. Godfrey is optimistic in recognizing that, despite the recession, “There is still a secular trend in healthy eating.”

This trend promises increasing interest in the co-op’s product line, but it also allows for the existential threat of the nation’s growing corporate health-food chains. The proliferation of Whole Foods and Wild Oats has had a devastating effect on some co-ops, but Honest Weight members seem unconcerned about local efforts to bring in Trader Joe’s.

“I’m not interested in responding to that fear,” McClintock says. “The growth of the corporate natural-foods supermarket has affected the cooperative food movement, but when people have a really good understanding that the co-op is more than just a grocery store, they’ll see that we are certainly more than those markets would be. I’m not naïve about [the effects of] this culture of consumption, but when we talk about sustainability and supporting local agriculture, those are things that don’t necessarily go along with those other stores.”

Lekakis hedges her bets when she acknowledges that, in the event the loan program falls short of its goal, “we’d try to fund it another way before paring [the design] down. . . . We’re creative people.” But if enough money is generated and all goes according to plan, the co-op hopes to begin construction on the new facility in May and be open by June 2010. “We’re excited to be moving forward, happy to be moving forward—and this is the right time.”

jpotter@metroland.net


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