One of the oldest food co-ops in the US, the pioneering Park Slope Food Coop, continues to break the mould as it nears its 40th birthday - and inspire followers from all over the world

A strange migration is taking place along the leafy avenues of the ‘hip-n-happening’ Park Slope neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York. A steady stream of people wearing high-vis bibs are pushing laden shopping carts down the road. Then 10 or so minutes later, this fluorescent army, its conscripts hailing from all walks of life and age groups, are retracing their steps from people’s cars or homes, carts now empty, to the sidewalk in front of 782 Union Street.

These are members of Park Slope Food Coop (PSFC), the pioneering US food co-op set up in 1973 by a group of neighbours who wanted to make healthy affordable food available to everyone who wanted it - and more importantly, were prepared to work for it.

Unlike The People’s Supermarket, you can’t walk in off the street and shop. To get the 20% to 40% savings on offer (this is an estimate - Ann Herpel, PSFC’s general co-ordinator, admits she doesn’t even know what the saving is: “I haven’t shopped anywhere else for 12 years,” she says), the 16,400 members have to work two hours 45 minutes every four weeks for the co-op.

“Our choice is join or don’t join,” explains Joe Holtz, founding member, general manager and one of the coop’s few full-time staff (the rest are volunteers). “Once you join, everyone gets treated the same in terms of price. There’s not even an employee discount for the 60 or 70 staff.”

That’s not the only way in which this unique co-op differs from its UK counterparts, as The Grocer discovered when Holtz gave us a tour of the store and an insight into how the model works.

Walking on to the shop floor is an eye-opening experience. This isn’t your typical sterile grocery retail environment. There’s an air of barely controlled chaos. The entrance area is filled with literature about the store’s environmental policy or upcoming events. Shelves are full to bursting (with 9,000 SKUs), the aisles are narrow and dotted with Xeroxed signs bearing kooky messages. Some shelf-edge labels are handwritten.

And the store is busy, though not as busy as it sometimes is. Because sales are so brisk (members spend on average $3,000 a year each) and some cashiers are more willing than able, checkout queues often snake all the way around the store, says Holtz. A feat in itself when aisles are obstructed as much by workers restocking the shelves as people doing their weekly shop.

“We’re not totally efficient,” concedes Holtz. “I could point out a number of ineffciencies, but basically speaking the member labour system is effcient enough. They work things out for themselves.”

This is not just a charming aspect of PSFC’s philosophy, it is core to it. The membership is strikingly diverse, Brooklyn hipsters wearing skater pants and sneakers rubbing shoulders with soccer moms. None have undergone rigorous training. Instead, after an introductory ‘orientation’, new workers are placed with experienced staff who show them how things work - “buddy training”, as Holtz calls it.

They work in one of five groups: the shopping squad oversees the tills and the florescent home delivery cart pushers; the receiving and stocking team looks after goods-in and refilling the shelves; the food processing squad undertake tasks such as slicing cheeses into pre-packed portions; and then there’s the membership offce team and the cleaning team.

It is a hive of (gloriously amateurish) industry and there is a palpable sense of camaraderie, which is partly why so many people want to join. Indeed, there’s such a long waiting list, the co-op is actively encouraging people to join a new neighbouring co-operative store (PSFC has just one store and no interest in expanding). As well as advising said co-op, PSFC is regularly visited by people from other US states and abroad keen to copy its model. Arthur Potts Dawson spent a week at the Brooklyn store before setting up The People’s Supermarket in 2010, for instance. Holtz believes that one of the reasons Potts Dawson’s business ultimately ran into diffculties is its open-door policy of allowing non-members to shop there.

“The discount didn’t reward the work of the people who had joined,” he adds, alluding to the fact that at The People’s Supermarket members receive a 20% discount in return for four hours work per month.

Because membership of PSFC carries such a premium, members have to abide by a stringent set of rules or risk being blackballed. If they fail to attend their monthly workslot, they have to make up the shift or risk suspension. “When they make up their time they’re allowed to shop again,” says Holtz.

The flipside is that members also get a say in making the rules. This March, the co-op held its largest meeting in history when a motion to boycott Israeli products was tabled. More than 2,000 members attended the meeting and in the end the majority voted against the action. Even if they had voted in favour of a boycott, the decision would still need to be ratified by the co-op’s six-strong board, which includes Holtz and five elected members, who each serve three-year terms.

While the co-op’s approach may sound a bit ‘right on’, it hasn’t stopped it racking up sales other single-store retailers would be envious of. In the year to 29 January 2012, it recorded net sales of $44m, and Holtz claims that in terms of sales per square foot, PSFC is achieving 12 times the US national average.

However, making a profit is not a priority, he insists. “Some stores say: ‘How many dollars of profit am I making?’ We don’t look at it that way. We say, OK, we’re selling 20 of this for $5 and 10 of this for $12, we’ll keep the
one that 20 people want.”

It’s a strategy that serves members well in terms of the range and quality of goods on offer. The co-op aims to provide a true one-stop shop offer. In addition to carrying a wide variety of products, including local, organic and conventionally grown fresh produce; kosher poultry; and wild and sustainably farmed fish; the store also stocks a large selection of standard branded supermarket items. All retail at 21% above cost.

It also aspires to be as environmental as possible. “We try and deal with suppliers that treat people right, so we’re interested in Fairtrade, we go out of our way to buy organic and we go out of our way to buy local.” By local he means produce and goods that are grown or manufactured within 500 miles of the store, although he adds that most of the local items are from within 150 miles of Brooklyn. To further minimise the co-op’s environmental footprint, virtually all of the store’s packaging waste is recycled. Even its fresh produce waste is either composted at local community gardens or donated to soup kitchens. “Everything either goes back to the earth or to a person to eat,” says Holtz.

Although the model may have a chequered recent history in the UK, the PSFC is living proof that it can work - without the need for fancy training, slick price comparison surveys (stopped in the mid-1990s) or even a profit.

“Our bottom line is member satisfaction,” says Holtz. “We’re not going to think about how we can squeeze more margin from the shelf. We just never think that way.”

And why should it? As they say, if it ain’t broke…