Helpful Partners: Engaging Members & Local Producers/Businesses

By SaraBeth Drybread of Columbus Food Co-op

columbus-logo

The staff at FCI knows that the task of opening a new retail food co-op requires many partners. The sheer volume of things to do can sometimes overwhelm even the best startup team. We want to share this story of using community partners to build success, and how startups might benefit from Helpful Partners.

Columbus Food Co-op in Columbus, Indiana knows that the vendors and providers they wish to feature in the store can be their best helpers in promoting the co-op. Presently they are in the implementation stage, they have worked with many producers to bring more value to owner-members even before the store opens. While building excitement for the co-op, they are growing strong relationships with these wonderful partners. SaraBeth Drybread shares two great examples with us and shows how it is a win-win for all parties. Our thanks to SaraBeth and Columbus Food Co-op for sharing their own Helpful Partners with us. For more information about Columbus Food Co-op, email info@columbusmarket.coop.  Reach the Food Co-op Initiative staff anytime at info@fci.coop.

“Before the Store Perks”

benefits-posterRelationships, relationships, relationships! That’s the co-op difference, right? As a startup, it’s important to keep owner-members engaged and feel like they’re benefiting from the time they join your co-op, especially since the process will be long. The co-op’s relationship with local producers and businesses is also key to growth and establishing yourself as an ally.

Our co-op offered “Before the Store Perks” at our farmer’s market. We reached out to local vendors (many of whom were owner-members) and asked them to offer a benefit to owners at the market.

Here are some examples:

  • Nightfall Farm: 10% off pastured chicken
  • Soapy Soap Co.: $2 off essential oils
  • Indiana Craft Jerky: $2 off bag of jerky
  • Fleming Family Beef: 10% off purchase

soapysoapsocialmediaThe co-op provided the following:

  • Poster for participating vendor to display at the farmer’s market
  • Owner-member Benefits Cards
  • Link to vendor on social media, newsletters, website
  • Weekly highlights of participating vendors & benefits
  • Mentions on bi-weekly radio morning show where we have a spot

The goal was to show our support and introduce new customers to these local vendors and increase our membership because everyone loves to get a discount!

We had owner-members pick up benefits card our booth which was a great way to engage with them and make sure they were up-to-date on our progress. Are you reading the newsletter? Do you follow us on Facebook? Have any questions?

Sponsor Buy Local Week

Another way to build relationships with local businesses is to sponsor a Buy Local Week (BLW), much like Small Business Saturday. This was one of our earliest initiatives and helped connect us with like-minded business leaders. We got a few fellow sponsors (bank, insurance company, community center) and participating businesses offered a discount to customers and the co-op did the rest.

The co-op:

  • Created index-sized cards with participating business logos on the back
  • Put Buy Local Week window decals in participating businesses
  • Created posters with info and list of businesses and placed all around town
  • Bought an add in the newspaper
  • Heavily publicized on social media, newsletters, website

buylocalweekcardThe BLW index cards were passed out at the Farmer’s Market, a couple of restaurants put them in with people’s checks, and we put stacks in some of the businesses. People would take a card during BLW to a participating business for the incentive and get the logo initialed on the back. At the end of the week we had a big ice-cream social and gave away door prizes to people who participated and turned in their cards.

This was open to everyone, not just owner-members. All the promotional materials had the co-op logo, website, and social media contacts on them, so it was a great way to build awareness.

Keep reaching out to local growers/producers and businesses.

They are your greatest ambassadors! Growers who have small stores and/or participate in the Farmer’s Market might see the co-op as competition instead of growth potential as another outlet for their goods. This is where education and impact stories from existing co-ops is crucial. Check out the Impact Report from Common Ground Food Co-op, or the Annual Reports from River Valley Market and communicate that type of local sales growth to your membership and potential vendors. One of our market vendors had their best week ever when they offered the discount to owner-members!

Now is the time to start lasting relationships. Do what you can to build your relationships with local growers because they’re your suppliers, customers, investors, and champions for owner growth. Stronger. Together.

FCI: Why We Like This: This type of cooperative community building can excite vendors and show them that owner-members are serious about supporting local producers. It also gives owners a tangible benefit of joining, and joining early—before the store opens. A new retail food co-op’s success can hinge on this type of partnership between co-op, members, and producers. 

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