In January 2009, the now 38-year-old Seward Co-op moved into its stylish new store in Minneapolis. Since then, membership has jumped from 4,700 to more than 7,900, employee numbers have climbed from 160 to 190, and revenues grown from $16 million to $21 million. Clearly, it has been a fruitful move. It didn’t necessarily appear that way at first.
“We broke ground on our new store right when the bottom fell out of the economy,” recalls Tom Vogel, the food cooperative’s marketing and member services manager. “As the shovels hit the dirt, we wondered, ‘Is this really a good time to be doing this?’ We never imagined the response would be as good as it’s been.”
The Seward Co-op’s bright-green building rises up like a spring vegetable from a formerly dilapidated brownfield site at the corner of Franklin and 28th Avenues. The 25,600-square-foot building is LEED Gold certified, with 25 percent more green space than zoning requires, windows that let in fresh air, and a roof and grounds that capture at least 90 percent of the stormwater that lands thereon and sends it directly onto the surrounding rain gardens, habitat for hummingbirds and butterflies.
Outside, there are 78 bike parking spots and a bike-repair station to encourage bike commuting. Seward Co-op also provides a hub for Minneapolis’s Nice Ride bike-sharing program and the Hourcar car-sharing organization.
Inside, the deli’s communal seating area is a gathering spot for members (and other visitors) of all ages, who come mostly from the Seward neighborhood, but also from the Longfellow and Powderhorn neighborhoods and from St. Paul (which is just across the Franklin Avenue bridge). Members and nonmembers alike can take classes on a wide range of topics, from brewing coffee and preserving foods to bike commuting and raising chickens in the city.
Vogel says the co-op is committed to measuring its success in ways other than financial—in an effort to “grow on purpose.” In 2006, employees created the Scorecard, which he calls a “self-devised social audit.”
“We look at things such as how we treat our employees, our effect on the environment, how we interact with our customers and our community, and other elements we feel are important to creating a well-rounded business,” Vogel says. One such element is the focus on selling local products; in 2010, about 35 percent of the co-op’s sales came from locally supplied food.
In 2005, the Seward Co-op launched its Community Fund, through which it awards annual grants (usually from $500 to $1,000) to “projects that protect the environment, support organic and/or local food cultivation, promote co-ops, community development, and capacity building.” Last year, the cooperative gave out almost $40,000, plus more than $14,000 for local food shelves. Organizations that received grants in 2009 include the Seward Child Care Center; the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, which advocates for public policies that promote equity in land use; and Seward Redesign, a community development nonprofit.
Seward Co-op’s “Ends Statement,” written by its board, outlines the organization’s commitment to “sustaining a healthy community that has equitable economic relationships, positive environmental impacts, and inclusive, socially responsible practices.” According to Vogel, the Ends Statement “informs everything we do. But first and foremost, we are a grocery store, committed to providing healthful, high-quality foods.”
Vogel says that Seward Co-op was bulging at the seams in its previous location, eight blocks up Franklin Avenue, before moving to its current location. He says two factors were the rise in popularity enjoyed by the natural-foods industry and the quality of the food available at the coop. These days, too, people appreciate knowing where their food comes from: The recent egg and peanut butter scares drove more people to Seward Co-op. “We know where our food comes from,” Vogel says. “And more and more families come here because they’re taking more stock of what their children eat.”
He says the economic downturn also may have played a part, and not only because people are forced to spend less on eating out. “People have seen more-traditional business models fail, and they’re starting to explore cooperatives,” Vogel says. “The idea that everyone is an owner—everyone has an equal voice—is appealing, given things that have happened on Wall Street and in real estate. I think people are demanding a degree of transparency from businesses, and that’s one of the things that a co-op has built into it.”
Seward Co-op employees stay around a long time, Vogel says. That includes the management team. “I think it speaks to how people feel about it, about how they feel this is a place where their values are put into action,” he observes. “When all’s said and done, you know you’re helping people eat well, and helping people eat good food is its own reward.”