CO-OP PCC Natural Markets

Founded in 1953 in Seattle as a food buying group, PCC Natural Markets posted 2006 sales of $103 million. That's small by conventional supermarket standards, but don't underestimate this smart, ethical and growing chain of eight stores. It's taken principled positions on complicated issues that matter to its members: The retailer recently decided to remove all products that contain artificial trans

Founded in 1953 in Seattle as a food buying group, PCC Natural Markets posted 2006 sales of $103 million. That's small by conventional supermarket standards, but don't underestimate this smart, ethical and growing chain of eight stores. It's taken principled positions on complicated issues that matter to its members: The retailer recently decided to remove all products that contain artificial trans fats, and has banned all dairy products containing rBGH, the artificial bovine growth hormone. In a controversial move, the retailer last September pulled products from Horizon Organic, owned by Dean Foods (another Fit 25 finalist) after the nation's largest dairy failed to convince PCC it was adhering to all aspects of the national organic standards.

“We think that's what being a co-op is all about — taking stands and being the gatekeeper,” said Diana Crane, PCC's communications director.

Indeed, the co-op's conscience is guided by fee-paying members, but stores are open to all. Crane concedes it's been an ongoing challenge to change people's perceptions about what PCC is. One step inside the chain's newest stores goes a long way toward dispelling the notion that PCC cannot be a one-stop supermarket.

“We've kept up with the look and the feel of stores that embrace a more modern approach to retailing. Our stores have been all upgraded,” Crane said, noting PCC's three newest supermarkets are larger than 20,000 square feet, and include juice and pizza bars, as opposed to first-generation units, which averaged 10,000 square feet and had no room for action stations.

“People who really want to embrace the natural foods lifestyle can now do almost all of their shopping at PCC. In the old days, they would come to us for their pills and produce, but go down the street for their toilet paper,” Crane said.

PCC has been a union shop since 1983, competing category by category with nearby Whole Foods, and Kroger-owned Fred Meyer and QFC. But its emphasis on nurturing a sense of community — even at the expense of profits — remains PCC's most profound difference with mainstream retailers.