There are food co-op stories that are shiny engines of success.
Take Weavers Way which announced earlier this month they received a $1 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant to build their fourth store in Germantown.
And there are food co-op stories that chug and puff but falter and fall.
Like the Creekside Co-op in Elkins Park that started in 2007, opened its store in 2013 and although it was heralded for helping revitalize Elkins Park, closed five years later by a board citing financial difficulties
And then there are the food co-op stories whose fate is still uncertain. Can they or can’t they — make the climb into prosperity?
That’s the saga of the Kensington Community Food Co-op (KCFC).
Since opening its store three years ago, KCFC has been long on purpose and passion, but short on profits. Board president Nadia Schafer said simply, “The store didn’t take off.”
Last month, KCFC sent out a do-or-die email to its members.
“We do not have the cash in the bank to run operations as normal. KCFC has been in a negative cash position since June, even after deferring all of our loans. We have reached a breaking point,” wrote Schafer announcing the last-ditch crowdfunding effort.
Without the money, Schafer said, the co-op would close and its mission to provide heathy food in Kensington, support local vendors, maintain its Coral Street Community Fridge and host community-building events would grind to a halt. She also said it was an “all or nothing” effort — either raise all the $200,000 or shut down.
“We need this amount to give us a shot at being successful; less than that will not allow us to unlock the full turnaround plan. Since we are structuring our campaign as ‘all or nothing,’ your pledge would not be collected unless we collectively reach the $200,000 target. If we do not raise this $200,000, I want to be very clear: KCFC will close its doors,” Schafer warned.
So, who would help the little co-op?
To date, over 800 donors have pulled together and have given $204,750 — enough to pay for a laundry list of improvements including $75,000 for a complete overhaul of product offerings and $40,000 to pay back bills. “Our members stepped up,” Schafer said. “It was amazing and humbling. We raised all the money in 10 days. It was a modern-day Rocky story.”
Rachel Kerns-Wetherington, a KCFC member and former board president, said she watched the numbers climb with glee as each donation brought them closer to their goal.
Unlike a typical food store, food cooperatives are member governed and democratically run with each member having a voice. That can also make it difficult to manage. “It is insanely hard to open and keep a co-op going,” said Kerns-Wetherington. “Everybody has a different opinion. If you have a board of eight people, you have eight different opinions, and you have to figure out how to have one voice.”
KCFC got its start in 2008, but it took six years to find a space — ultimately, an abandoned bar in East Kensington that had been gutted by vandals — and then another five years to renovate. Although they were able to use a significant amount of volunteer labor, construction cost overruns almost doomed the fledgling effort.
In 2019 the doors finally opened and despite the mission to bring fresh food to an underserved community, the community was underwhelmed. The pandemic brought in more money but eight months in, the board sent out a do-or-die letter seeking $20,000 in donations from members. It also cut staff and reduced hours.
This time around, KFCF has contracted with Columinate, a cooperative consulting organization, and brought in a turnaround food cooperative expert. Dennis Hanley, who has worked in the grocery industry for 47 years, in every state, has had 15 international assignments and turned around 27 stores.
He was blunt in his initial assessment of KCFC.
“Everything was wrong,” Hanley said.
Hanley explained that there are three things a food store has to get right — the right product mix, high-quality customer service, and the right price.
“I’ve seen stores miss two out of three. KCFC was missing on three out of three,” Hanley said. One of the most significant problems was the product mix didn’t reflect the store’s large Puerto Rican and Black community.
Hanley, who started in September, has about six to nine months to get KCFC on the right track. He told the board to keep fund-raising to create “wiggle room,” then he shuttered the store — this time temporarily — in order to redesign and to relaunch. He refused to give an exact date for the reopening but hinted it would be soon.
For KCFC it’s another chance at life.
Kerns-Wetherington said her dream for the people of Kensington is to have a grocery store that can be in the green with a diverse mix of products that meets all the needs of the people shopping there.
Dennis Hanley said he thinks that KCFC can.