Wednesday December 12, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN

Wild Oats Food Co-Op will celebrate 30 years as a member-owned cooperative grocery store on Saturday. Cake and ice dream will be served to all at 2 p.m., said chef Greg Roach, and members will get extra discounts that day on certain items.

Today’s Wild Oats "is very different than the buying club of 30 years ago, said Roach. "The membership has demanded that and we are membership-driven. They tell us what they want and that’s what we do."

When the organization -- established as a buying club in 1975 -- first took over a store space in the Colonial Shopping Center in 1982 and became Wild Oats Cooperative, they could not have served their own cake and local ice cream. They had no bakery, no space or facilities to cook, bake or even sit and eat; and no local entrepreneur closer than Northampton was making ice cream commercially.

So much has changed since they put together $5,000 plus equipment to open that first store on what former general manager David Fowle called "a wing and a prayer."

He said the market went through four expansions and two moves before buying and moving into its present location, the former Dox Drugs, at 320 Main St., in 2005.

"I wrote a letter to Arnold Goldberg, the druggist who owned Dox Drugs, 10 years before we bought that building for Wild Oats," Fowle said.

Marketing and member services manager Robin Riley said Wild Oats serves a broader constituency than it did when it first started.


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Membership now reaches beyond Williamstown and North Adams to include people from Pittsfield and Lanesborough, Adams and Southwest Vermont, she added.

Low-income discount

The former 10-percent senior discount they offered has been replaced by a 10-percent Healthy Food for All discount that encourages low-income people to shop at the market. Fowle said the discount idea has been adopted by other co-ops in the region.

Current membership at Wild Oats is 1,219, said operations manager Renate Kopynec, including 24 of the original 100 families. Among those were Sam and Elizabeth Smith, the original owners of the organic Caretaker Farm in South Williamstown.

Kopynec became a Wild Oats member in 1987 and a staff member in 1990.

"While our product selection has expanded, it has always been healthy and delicious," she said. "Even though the size of our store and staff have increased, we still take pride in running a warm, friendly, small local business."

Chef Roach explained that during the number of in-house expansions in the current Wild Oats building, aisles were narrowed to make way for the popular hot bar.

"We’re constantly expanding within the store itself and the more services the more products we can offer the better," he said.

Beer and wine are also sold.

Roach said the deli sells more than 400 pounds of cooked chicken they butcher themselves each week; and the bakery sells 3,000 of their "big, fat chocolate chip, ginger, oatmeal, peanut butter and pistachio cookies for a $1.49 every month."

"The membership really would like a meat department. We offer prepackaged meats but until we have a certified meat room we can’t do that," he said.

Special events range from a blood pressure clinic to latke-making demo to food tastings or demo/classes on growing your own mushrooms.

Roach said co-ops around the country now have community rooms and classrooms for events.

The café makes a perfect gathering spot," he went on. "We have everything from student groups to local businesses who meet clients here to people meeting for coffee. People come to Wild Oats not just to shop. We try to become a community resource."

Fowle ran Wild Oats Market for 24 years; first as one of three co-managers with Steve Bushway and Kacy Westwood, then as solo general manager. While Fowle was general manager, in about 2000, Wild Oats helped create the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA). Fowle became a member of the NCGA originating board.

NCGA came into being to bring together small, independent cooperative groceries all over the country in order to match the buying and financial power of large, commercial natural food entities like Whole Foods.

"As small independent co-ops/grocers we could not compete with Whole Foods even though, all together, we had as many customers," Fowle said. "Now we could band together to buy as a unit. We could buy together, get lowered credit card rates, any aspect of doing business. As independent co-ops we were small. Now we could command much better rates."

After Wild Oats was settled in its new, larger location in 2006, a position as an advisor opened at NCGA. Fowle took the job.

Now he works with general managers of affiliated co-ops in the eastern third of the country.

However, his office is just across the road from Wild Oats. He still spends lots of time there.

"I’m in there for my morning coffee. I’m in there at salad bar for lunch. And I stop to bring things home at night. So I’m at Wild Oats three times a day most weekdays. I’m a proud member-owner!"

In Great Barrington

Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington, which also turned 30 last year, has similarly developed and grown. In 2003, it moved into its current location on Bridge Street. Members formed a human chain from the original co-op on Rosseter Street, across Railroad and Main streets moving co-op goods down to the new building.

Last week they announced plans to make a second move in late 2014.

Beginning with 160 families in 1981, the Berkshire Co-op, as it is known, now has 3,500 member-owners.

The move will give them 10,000 square feet -- more than twice the size of the current 4,500 square site -- in a complex to be built on the site of the former New England Log Homes adjacent to the Housatonic River. Ground breaking is scheduled to begin next fall.

Co-op General Manager Art Ames said: "We will solicit ideas from our owners and community as we build the new location. However, I will hire experts to actually build the store, help us balance the offerings that we will have, help us pick the right colors, etc.

"Most recently," he said, "our owners stated that they would like to see expanded meat, seafood and cafe/hot bar offerings at the new location. They want us to work with them to reduce credit card fees.

"They want us to find alternatives to products that contain GMOs [genetically modified organisms] and want us to increase our programs geared toward affordability and outreach in the community."

Near the Berkshires there are co-ops in Northampton, Greenfield and one starting in Cummington; in Albany, Chatham, Troy and a new one starting in Philmont, all in New York; and some in Southwestern Vt.