A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Co-op

We popped into French Broad Food Co-op during the Women’s March in Asheville on Saturday for a few snacks and something to drink. And as I wandered the aisles, I thought, maybe it’s time to re-up our membership at the Co-op. Then, today I found this piece I wrote almost 20 years ago (March 2, 1999) for the Co-op newsletter about why we chose to be worker/owners there.

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It was about 15 years ago. I had quit marijuana and cocaine, and was now working on kicking my real drug of choice–Budweiser. And I was beginning the transition from burgers, fries, and pizza to a healthier diet. Now, the places I lived during this period–Nashville, Baton Rouge, Orlando, Arlington (Texas)–didn’t offer a great deal of choices in terms of healthy foods. Most “health food stores” had rows and rows of pills but not much in the way of fruit, vegetables, rice, etc. So I was ecstatic when I got to Austin and found the original Whole Foods Market on North Lamar, about 7000 or so square feet in size with the feel of a neighborhood grocery store and a diverse clientele–women in business suits, aging hipsters, baby boomers, Gen-Xers, college students, and more. This little store contained everything I needed to cook up my favorite recipes–black beans, rice, and marinated veggies; Mulkey’s muesli (a concoction of oats, oat bran, raisins, dates, and apple juice served with soy milk and fresh fruit); and peanut butter and bananas on whole wheat.

Most of the relatively youthful staff of the store were into alternative lifestyles, with various levels of tattooing, piercing, hair of brilliant hues, etc. And while I found the diverse mix of folks intriguing, the thing that kept bringing me back (besides the food) was the way they invited me in, helped me to feel welcome, and their willingness to connect with me at a very human level. If I even looked as if I needed something, there was usually someone there. I developed relationships with staff members, especially the cashiers and would often choose a longer line at checkout just so I could chat with my friends. I even wound up going out a few times with one of the cashiers, an earthy woman in her 30s. Nothing much came of it except that, after the fact, I realized she looked a lot like my great-grandmother. But that’s another story.

Anyway, when Shonnie (my fiance) and I were visiting Asheville in August of 1997, trying to decide whether to take the leap of faith and make the move from Austin to Asheville, we discovered the French Broad Food Co-op. Finding our favorite organic foods was a concern for us, and we were overjoyed that we could get, if not the frills, at least the basics of our diet at the Co-op.

One of the first things we did when we got here in October (’97) was go to the Co-op and fill our shopping cart. And within weeks we were worker-members, not so much for the discounts, but because we believed in what the Co-op stood for, and because we wanted to jump into community life in Asheville with both feet. Shonnie worked in produce, and I helped clean, first inside, then out in the parking lot. Found some good stuff there too–a software package and a pocketknife. Later, I began writing articles for SCOOP. And yet when I’d come to shop at the Co-op, it sometimes seemed I’d walked into a private party, a party where I was an unwelcome guest, tolerated because I had money to spend. If I asked for help, folks usually seemed generally willing, but if not, I was on my own. I connected with a few folks. But, no matter how many times I came in (and it was usually three or so times a week), no one seemed to know (or care) whether I was a member or not, let alone my name. And, I might be projecting my stuff here, but when I wore a coat and tie, which I did (and do) occasionally for business purposes, I seemed to become invisible when I walked in the front door.

So, I drove across the river to try Earth Fare. Nice big store. Lots of stuff. Hot food deli. “Maybe this is it,” I thought. Yet, when I walked up to two staff members who were talking and stood beside them, they continued their private conversation. When I finally asked, “Where are the bulk raisins?” they seemed startled, and though one of them graciously searched only to discover there were no bulk raisins, I knew this wasn’t the place I was searching for either.

It was about this time that I noticed something of a shift at the Co-op. Rather than asking to see my membership card at checkout, I was asked, “What discount are you getting now?” A few staff members called me by name. Someone even bagged my groceries while I paid one day!

I wondered what was afoot. I asked around a bit and learned that a new general manager had been hired–Jim DeLuca. Wondering if he was somehow responsible for the changes I’d discerned, I decided to talk with him, maybe find out more about this guy and what he’s up to.

We met at his office above the store and exchanged a little chitchat about how it was to be living in Asheville, the paths we had taken to get here, etc. Then we got down to the subject at hand. As I talked with Jim, I was not disappointed. Open and friendly, Jim shared his vision of a Co-op in which connections were easily created between all stakeholders involved–shoppers, children of shoppers, vendors, stockholders, management, employees in other co-op stores, and instore co-workers alike.

“I think the best way to create a Co-op that serves all stakeholders is to have staff members understand and appreciate how the act of ‘doing service’ creates an inner sense of compassion that adds value to their own lives,” Jim said. “Listening to and helping others creates connection between people which makes life more fulfilling for both parties. The shoppers who receive this act of service will feel gratitude. Feeling grateful makes it easy for shoppers to be more relaxed and to connect more readily. Because they are respected as people beyond their role as customers who are spending money, shoppers will become loyal to French Broad Food Co-op. And, they will then pass on respect and acknowledgment to team members and others in their lives, thus completing the circle.”

Wow, what a concept: mutual respect. This is it. This is what I’ve been searching for, am hungry for, the element that will keep me involved–an environment that nurtures connections between me, staff, other shoppers, the homeless folks in the parking lot, whoever shows up. We are, after all, all in this together.

But French Broad Food Co-op and those of us involved in it have a mission that reaches beyond our Co-op, beyond Asheville, and beyond Western North Carolina according to Jim.

“By supporting the inherent value of service and respect, the possibility for a more caring future is created, a future in which clean water and air, healthy agricultural practices, sensible medical health systems, and practical nurturing educational institutions can thrive. In doing so, French Broad Food Co-op acts in conjunction with our mission to create a socially responsible sustainable future, for ourselves, for our nation, for the world at large.”

Man, I don’t think I could have said it better myself. Nice going, Jim. I’m with you all the way.

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