It's been a long road for Friends & Farmers... when we started in January of 2012, most of us realized achieving our vision would require years of research and fundraising. A full-service grocery store focused on local products is a novelty, and raising capital and building a community of members takes time.
There are nearly 500 cooperative groceries in the U.S. to learn from, but few have a mission of promoting local food. Co-op advisors and store managers of analogous stores (like Friendly City in Harrisonburg, VA home of James Madison University) have cautioned that produce is one of the most difficult departments of the grocery to manage, and stocking more than ~20% from local sources is not feasible.
Friends & Farmers is committed to "connecting consumers and producers in central PA" and 20% of inventory is not what we mean!
The decision to open the online market was a difficult one. Online markets are not a common start-up approach for brick-and-mortar co-ops, and there was some concern among board members that the energy it would take to manage the online market could detract from our membership drive. But at the same time, there was a lot of hope - the online market would help us develop relationships with producers, manage local sourcing, enhance our membership drive, and potentially develop a business model that would allow the brick-and-mortar store to exceed that 20% local threshold.
We are charting new territory here. In 5 years, Friends & Farmers may be the model for how to start a locally-focused food cooperative in the United States. Food Co-op Initiative (FCI) and Cooperative Development Services Consulting Cooperative (CDS) may point to us when asked how to increase sales of local produce in existing co-ops or start a new locally-focused co-op.
About a month ago we submitted two proposals. The Local Food Promotion Program grant ($100,000) would substantially expand our online market. FCI's seed grant ($10,000), which we were just awarded, will build a rock-solid business foundation based on the strongest examples of co-op grocery management nationwide. This will enable us to move ahead with real estate decisions and bank loans to open the store - once we have the membership to support those commitments.
Membership matters. We applied for the FCI Seed Grant in the summer of 2013, but didn't make the cut because we didn't have members. FCI couldn't invest in a co-op, no matter how promising, if the community hadn't demonstrated its support. At 337 members, FCI believes we're viable and wants to help us make it the rest of the way. But we need many more members to convince banks and other investors that we are a viable prospect.
If you've been thinking about joining, or have friends that are, consider FCI's investment in Friends & Farmers as a vote of confidence that we are on the right track. FCI will help us get our financial planning completed in the next year and put us on a path followed by the most successful cooperative start-ups. Friends & Farmers' conservative and proven development approach gives members confidence that their $300 investment ($30/month for 10 months!) will pay off for their families, their local economy and--most important-- their community.
The sooner you join, the sooner this store will open! Join today!
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