SOMETIMES IT'S GOOD TO SEE how the other half lives.
Across the tracks, on the opposite end of the food retail spectrum, thriving single-unit natural food stores remind conventional retailers what it means to get into the health and wellness business.
People's Food Co-op in Portland, Ore., is a prime example. Founded as a buying club in 1970, the 3,000-member community food outlet in the city's bohemian Hawthorne section has become a neighborhood focal point, not only for food, but information, outreach and involvement.
Here, yoga classes are regularly offered in the upstairs meeting room, and every Wednesday finds the side street in front of the store blocked off and filled with local farmers and artisans offering in-season produce and other fresh foods.
Extra effort is made to sell only local, sustainable items, as outlined in the store's Product Selection Guidelines adopted by the cooperative's board in 2002. It is regularly reviewed and updated, but the ongoing purpose of the document is to give direction to the store's buyers in their sourcing efforts.
At first glance, mainstream retailers may think they have little in common with such a distant food cousin. But consumer-owned co-ops offer progressive operators key lessons in civics and a glimpse at emerging trends.
“Our mission is pretty basic: Buy local, buy organic and buy from small producers whenever possible,” said Sarah Cline, People's marketing manager. “Those are the guidelines that have been approved by the co-op board and members.”
Signs, pamphlets and posters can indeed be found in every department of the 2,400-square-foot selling floor. A laminated card attached to a raw foods set informs customers that particular products qualify since they were not heated above 105 degrees Fahrenheit during their manufacture. So, it's on these shelves that they'll find items like locally made sprouted sauerkraut crackers. In produce, a large cork bulletin board is tacked with photos of the farms visited during the year. People's sources its fruits and vegetables from just over 50 family-owned farms in the Willamette Valley region.
“Most everything in the store is organic, though it may not have the USDA seal,” Cline noted. “Some producers lease their land and it's incredibly difficult to get certified that way. Others don't agree with the [National Organic Standards]. But all are third-party certified and meet the co-op's standards.”
People's is a vegetarian co-op and, as such, makes produce and bulk foods the centerpiece of the store. A mid-October visit found bushels of more than 15 varieties of in-season, local apples and pears. A multi-deck wall cooler held an abundance of greens, including organic spinach, which remained available and on sale during the recent E. coli outbreak.
“The Willamette Valley is an incredibly rich place to grow food, and the reason why we can offer a lot of products year-round,” Cline said, adding the mild climate keeps the Wednesday farmers' market in business as well, though there may only be half of the 15 or so vendors found during the peak of summer.
The adjacent bulk area includes more than 250 gravity bins, jars and taps, along with a weigh station and several packaging options. Blackberry and clover honeys are here, along with wild-crafted seaweeds, and spices and herbs in mason jars. Shoppers can measure the desired amount and choose plastic or petroleum-free cellulose bags, cotton satchels or paper bags. These are the kinds of small touches that define a retailer who enjoys a strong rapport with customers.
Other store departments hold similar surprises. In dairy, a line of refrigerated doors merchandises goat cheese from Fraga Farms, a local producer; organic duck eggs, which are richer and larger than jumbo chicken eggs, but competitively priced; and locally sourced milk that is pasteurized, but not homogenized.
An adjacent set of doors holds unique perishables like raw sprouted hummus; fresh organic red ginger limeade; and artisan vegan truffles, delivered by the manufacturer himself on his bike trailer. Such one-of-a-kind finds make People's a destination stop, if only to see what's new and interesting.
A small but well-rounded grocery department includes a number of brand names in shelf-stable juices, frozen foods, soups, pastas and sauces. What could only be described as an action endcap outfitted with a cutting board and knife offers homemade bar soaps sold by the pound; bulk liquid soaps with pump handles are found below.
Pets and babies each get their own 4-foot sections, stocked primarily with well-known natural brand names. All of the baby products are chlorine-free, including wipes and diapers. Pet food is organic, and the only section of the entire store that is not vegetarian.
The products found in People's speak to the values of its deeply committed members and non-member shoppers. However, there is one area where the single-unit co-op and giant conventional retailers like Wal-Mart are on the same page: The emerging emphasis on low-impact building materials, recycling and energy conservation.
When the store was updated and expanded in 2002, the co-op took advantage of grants from city government agencies and area environmental groups to incorporate structural features like cob, an earth/sand/straw mixture that is strong and exceedingly pliant prior to setting. Cob benches outside the store and the exterior walls on either side of the entry are highlighted by whimsical designs. Inside, cob embellished with gem-colored, recycled glass bottles forms a partition in the small children's activity area. A two-table eating and literature section includes seating made with cob.
The store's roof sprouts two green sections, which help reduce rainfall runoff and moderate ambient temperatures inside and directly overhead the building. Out in the store's front courtyard, two bioswales — depressions in the ground approximately 10 feet long — are planted with native Oregon flora that additionally help reduce the volume of storm runoff and polluted water from reaching the nearby Willamette River.
“The city of Portland has been very supportive in helping us to be a green store,” Cline said. The city included People's as part of the ongoing pilot project testing the effectiveness of the bioswales, she added.
Heating and cooling are greatly assisted by the use of a special Ground Source Heat Pump, which relies on the very earth underneath the store as a battery of sorts, from which the building draws heat. Cooling is accomplished by a passive-exchange solar chimney, which uses solar radiation to move fresh air inside. The store offers tours describing the various environmental elements, as well as a “self-guided” tour booklet — printed with soy-based ink on 100% recycled paper.