Helpful Partners: Engaging Members & Local Producers/Businesses

By SaraBeth Drybread of Columbus Food Co-op

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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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Helpful Partners: Donated Marketing Rocks!

By Dennis Rosenblum of Bay City Cooperative
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The staff at FCI knows that the path to opening a new retail food co-op is rarely a straight line. The sheer volume of things to do can sometimes overwhelm even the best startup team. We want to share this story of using community business partners to build success, and how startups might benefit from Helpful Partners.
Bay City Cooperative Market in Bay CIty, Michigan needed to build a great website to market their startup. They reached out to the local community and got professional work donations to help. This donation of service also has supported their promotional efforts.  Our thanks to Dennis Rosenblum from Bay CIty for sharing a bit about their own Helpful Partners with us. For more information about Bay CIty Cooperative Market, email info@baycityfood.org  Reach the Food Co-op Initiative staff anytime at info@fci.coop.

It’s an inevitable conundrum: You need to get the word out about your budding co-op and convince people to put up money as members. And to do that, you should look like you know what you’re doing. But you don’t have the money to pay for professional media services. What to do?

One solution, as we’ve found out, is to just ask.

Sure, we could have come up with a website ourselves. There are even free web services that look good.

Instead, we asked a local design firm for free help. The response? They actually seemed honored that we’d asked. As they put it on Facebook: “Every once in a while, we have the privilege of taking on a project to help improve the community where we live. The Bay City Food Cooperative is one of those projects.”

And what we got (check out baycityfood.org) was much more than we’d have come up with ourselves.

Later, when we saw that some other co-ops had great promotional videos, we decided to rip off—rather, to borrow—their idea. So we asked a local videographer for free help. His response? Sure, he’d do it—and so would various co-op supporters who didn’t hesitate to talk enthusiastically on camera.

 

Bay City Video

See the video on the website!

A month later, we had a great video that quickly scored thousands of views and created lots of buzz about the co-op.

Along the way, a printer provided us with promotional rack cards for free. And when we needed to book a hotel for a market consultant coming to town, we didn’t get a free room—but we did get a nice discount.

In every case, all we had to do was ask.

There’s more.

When we went looking for prizes to award in membership drives, we looked to friends and co-op supporters who have businesses. Again, no problem. People were eager to help.

Are we just lucky? Do we have some secret sauce? Do we have a town full of particularly cooperative people? Probably not.

Two points that may be obvious but are worth remembering:

1. Make sure you’re clear on what the gift covers. For instance, if it’s from a mechanic, is it a free tune-up or a gift certificate good for anything? You don’t want winners to end up feeling like they got scammed.

2. Give the donor some publicity in return. When you promote a prize drawing, mention the business and its address or website. When the prize is awarded, take a picture of the donor and the winner together for your Facebook and/or blog posting.

Looking back, we’ve made some mistakes as we work toward getting a co-op up and running. We’ll probably make more. But recognizing when we can use help and asking for it isn’t a mistake at all. Really, the worst that can happen is that someone says no.

The support we’ve received affirms our belief that a food co-op would be a great addition to our city. It’s reassuring to discover that others see it that way, too—and that they’re willing to help. It brings more people into the fold. It saves us money that we can better use down the road.

If we were corporate-type people, we’d have some roll-your-eyes term to describe the power of asking for help—thinking outside the box, a win-win, leveraging or some goofy thing.

We’re not, so we don’t do that. We just think it makes sense. In a cooperative way.

FCI: Why We Like This:  A co-op is more than a grocery store, it is a members of a community. Reaching out to other community businesses who support a better, healthier, and more democratic vibe in the community is a great idea!  You may not always find free help, but discounts, great advice, and you will build relationships within your town that will prove valuable for years to come. You save dollars, but the gains from making these connections can go far beyond that!
FCI: And A Note on Donations and Taxation:  Talk to your tax accountant and/or legal advisor before agreeing to these projects. In most cases, retail food co-ops are not charitable or tax-exempt. Donations made to a co-op are usually considered taxable “in-kind” income and will need supporting paperwork for the IRS. The donating company may not be able to claim a tax deduction for doing this work.  Be sure both you and your potential partners have an understanding of this. Many partners  want to support you anyway, and are not concerned, but take the time to get the facts for your own records.

Growing Pains: The GM Transition

By Heather Avella of Manchester Food Co-op

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The staff at FCI knows that the path to opening a new retail food co-op is rarely a straight line. The potholes and unexpected turns can really shake up even the best startup team. We love to share stories of these Growing Pains, and how startups have overcome them, or what they would do differently.
Manchester Food Co-op in Manchester, NH has faces some twist and turns on their path. Now in the process of converting a store to a co-op, to open soon, they found the letting go process involved once a general manager was on board was a bit of an unnerving thing.  Our thanks to Heather Avelia, project manager at Manchester for sharing a bit about their own Growing Pains with us. For more information about Manchester, email info@manchesterfood.coop.  Reach the Food Co-op Initiative staff anytime at info@fci.coop.

Hiring your first General Manager. You see this topic on every start-up conference agenda, notice many references in CDS Consulting Co-op’s library, participate in a session or two about recruiting your GM, and gather tips how to make your co-op marketable to national talent.  We did all these things at the Manchester Food Co-op.  In hindsight we were not prepared for how difficult the process—and the transition it signifies—would be.

All of us who have experienced the simultaneous pleasure and pain of growing our food co-op from embryonic visionary state to the exciting and practical stage when a GM is hired know the sweat, tears, and triumphs involved in the adventure. The board, motivated by passion and a common cause, has its hands in everything from soup to nuts: when the GM is hired the shift can be surprising.  The board’s role and feeling of empowerment will change. They will be giving up control over pieces they have been intrinsically involved with, pieces that are also very near and dear to the mission.   At Manchester we found that, although you can be prepared from a textbook kind of sense, you may be surprised the wave of emotions that arise during this transition.   At least we were. We are happy to share our challenges and some tips with you.

Biggest Challenges

Separation Anxiety

We now have a fantastic General Manager who has over a decade of co-op experience. We feel very fortunate to have been able to hire such talent as a start-up!  However, no matter what type of rock star GM you hire, the challenge can be likened to parental separation anxiety.  Suddenly you have the loss of input into anything involving operations.  Our board consisted of members with grocery, HR, and architectural experience. They now had to now withhold their expertise to allow our GM to build his own plans and establish relationships. This is a tough letting go process. Board members who felt their value was in these skill sets now felt uncertain of their contribution. What do you mean I don’t have a say in store design? How do I not pursue conversations with local producers and potential vendors? Why can’t I lend a hand in the staffing plan? Why does the DC want to deal with only GM’s or PM’s, and not any board members?  Board members may feel like the bricks that they have been stacking for years while building toward a store have now formed a wall and they are on the outside, looking in.

 Policy Readiness

manchester bldgThen there was the Policy Governance piece.  We intended to operate by Policy Governance, because that is what food co-ops do, but we really didn’t even know what that meant. Ends? Means? We were suddenly chasing these concepts after already hiring our GM, which was less than ideal. When we interviewed GM candidates, we stated that we would govern by Policy Governance but we weren’t well versed in these principles, and we should have been!

Our tips for other startups

Be Prepared for Change and Letting Go!

When your new GM comes on board, there will be a clear division between operations and capital. Your board will be responsible for raising capital. Your GM will be responsible for all things related to store operations, including store design, staffing, products, and pricing. Conceptually, we have found it easiest to understand in the context of our pro forma: the board is responsible for the sources, while the GM is responsible for the uses. For some board members this will be more difficult than for others. Recognize that this stage, when you are implementing your capital campaign and your GM is hired, is not for everyone. You may find some turnover in board membership during this period, and that’s okay. Keep the lines of communication open between all board members to avoid any tension or dips in morale. Recognize when a board member may need to move on because he/she is not suited for this developmental stage.

Don’t drag your feet on Policy Governance!

Engage your Policy Governance before you hire your GM.  Without digging into this prior to hiring our GM, we were not prepared to both communicate our ends and understand how the GM/board relationship would work within this framework. Use the CDSCC’s CBLD materials and programs—don’t re-invent the wheel as there are great governance templates out there. Get your draft done and understand this process so you are best positioned for a smoother ride once your GM comes aboard. Understand how the board’s role will be to govern by ends, and make sure you feel comfortable that your ends represent your vision. This will give you the confidence that the vision will be executed, while completely empowering your GM to make decisions.

If you don’t have a policy governance lover on your board, get one fast – one of our drawbacks was not finding someone who loves bylaws and policies, so it became one of the important things we would consistently avoid.

I’m sure there is no food coop out there that would say this stage is completely carefree, smooth and easy. As with many coop developmental transitions, it is sloppy and less than perfect. By keeping in mind the passion behind your project, and taking some of these preventative steps to prepare, you can set yourselves up to surmount the challenges.  The end result is establishing a great working partnership with your GM and successfully opening your doors.  Nothing is better than that.

At least, that is what we imagine. We all joke that we will be laying on the co-op’s floor, bawling impressive puddles of tears when our doors finally do open!  I am looking forward to seeing that scene manifest.

 

FCI: Why We Like This:  No matter how many terrific industry experts and consultants you work with, no one but a peer startup cooperator can tell you what it’s going to feel like to transition from a working board to the governing board of a co-op that’s about to open the store. To be a board leader at a startup food co-op is to get used to being on a roller coaster, but it’s always easier to enjoy the ride when you know that next twist is coming. Thank you to Heather for sharing with us a little bit about the track ahead from one who’s been there!

 

Great Events: Promoting Membership

by Jeremy Nash of Prairie Food Co-op
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The staff at FCI loves hearing about the great events that startup co-ops offer. They build membership, teach people about co-ops, and bring the communities together over food, and local food systems. FCI wants to share some of these with you in our blog stories on Great Events.
Prairie Food Co-op in Lombard, IL has been successful in building membership by using one-month promotions, and keeping the interest high on social media. Our thanks to Jeremy Nash, co-founder and outreach coordinator of this startup food cooperative, for sharing this Great Event with us. For more information on these promotions, email Jeremy at jerry@prairiefood.coop. Reach the Food Co-op Initiative staff anytime at info@fci.coop.

At Prairie Food Co-op, we have been very successful at running promotions. They are an effective way of increasing membership numbers, but require thoughtful planning and interaction. The following is a list of the basics we have found to be most helpful.

Identify a realistic goal
The Facts PRairie Food PromosOur standard is the month-long promotion with the aim of getting around new 30 member/owners, but you can successfully use other time frames and goals. The more urgent the timeframe, the more chance of success is promised. If you want potential owners to be engaged, they’ve got to “see” the goal. A two week or month-long goal is easy to see, while a multi-month goal may be too long to maintain focus.

Choose an appropriate enticement
Knowing your community and potential member base is important. Consider how much you are willing to spend. Anything you can get for free or a deal is a plus. Often, a farmer or business will be happy to provide the prize for free or reduced cost, knowing the value the promotion will bring them. Or ask your owners for freebies. People welcome a chance to help the co-op if they’re too busy to help by volunteering. One or our owners donated four Cubs tickets, which we changed to two pairs to use as an incentive and we signed up 23 new member/owners in less than a week.

A few ideas for enticements:
CSA share (fruit, veggie, meat, fish), Arboretum/Museum Membership, gift card at local restaurant, theater, sports and local event tickets, locally made art, spa pass, etc. The sky’s the limit!

Messaging
Before announcing your promo, thoughtful planning of messaging is key to keeping your community engaged while the promo is going on. Name your promo something catchy, but simple, like “30 in 30” or “25 to Thrive”. You’ll be writing this a lot so make sure it’s not too complicated and can be incorporated into more specific messaging and easily hashtagged (#30in30!).

An effective medium to communicate your promo is your newsletter. Make sure the newsletter is to the point and doesn’t contain too much information. The promo doesn’t have to be the only topic in the newsletter, but it should be just one of a few topics. Make sure you have a link inside the newsletter that takes the receiver to your owner signup page.

Facebook
Prairie Food Coop screen shot FBSocial media can be a very valuable tool. We use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but Facebook has proven to be most effective. Understanding it’s pacing and algorithms will help produce results. Check out the Prairie Food Facebook page for a real life example.

Post at least three times a day if you can. Around 10 am, 2 pm, and early evening are the best times. Posting too early, too late, around commute times, or around mealtimes will limit your views. When running a promo, two of these posts should be related to the promo. They can be new member/owner announcements, the promo itself, or the website of the prize you are raffling* off.

A graphic that lists all of the details of the promo so you don’t have to write the details of the promo every time you post is very helpful. When the pic is clicked, it should send them to your member/owner signup page on your website. Countdown (15 to Go!, 10 to Go!, 5 to Go!) graphics are effective too.

Welcome your new owners as they come in. Some co-ops welcome four or five new members at a time in a post, which is necessary sometimes, but I believe it’s more effective to post owner welcomes one at a time to maintain an appearance of steady growth.

Make sure that as many people as possible see your posts, or at least the important ones. Here are a few tips on getting more eyes on your promo posts.

• Tell your audience to “like”, comment, and share the post within the post itself.
• Share the post in as many appropriate community Facebook groups and pages as possible.
• “Like” your own posts! Each “like” you receive increases your views. I “like” each post we make as myself, our co-op page, and two other pages that I am admin for.
• Boosting your post can be very effective, especially if you use Facebook’s targeting tool where you can target your preferred audience for your post by criteria such as city, gender, age, and what pages they like. Be aware that after you boost a post, the organic numbers you achieved before you boosted will dramatically sink for a period of time.

If your ongoing membership drive seems to be stuck and you are not getting any traction, consider a mini-promo that will get you rebooted. This has worked for us on multiple occasions. Our recent Cubs tickets promo was a mini-promo. We found that we got a large majority of our goal in the last 24 hours of our promo.

Prairie Food CUBS tix winnersAnd the Winner Is!
If you don’t meet your goal you don’t have to post about it. Most people won’t notice. However, if your promo was a success, shout it to the world.

If you’ve got the time, have fun with it. You can write all the names down on a piece of paper and make a video of a cute kid drawing the name from a hat, but wait to announce the winner until you have contacted them and they are interested in the prize. Some people, especially in cases where you mix promotions or the prize is time sensitive, may not want the prize or be able to use it. Alternately you can use whatever online random generator you want. No one has to know that you didn’t go to all the trouble of pulling a name out of a hat. In this case you can just announce the winning member in a post with a link to the prize they’ll be winning.

This example is by no means exhaustive, but I am confident that if you follow most of the advice listed, you will have a successful member/owner promotion. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me at jerry@prairieood.coop.

Good luck!

FCI: Why We Like This:  A series of promotions like these shared by Prairie Food Co-op can successfully build and maintain excitement around membership, as well as keep the co-op active in the public eye. Getting enticing prizes is a key that may require a great negotiator from the co-op group, but also can build community relationships. Your group can decide on prizes based on available donations and your own budget. This is a great example of effective use of social media to reach new and existing member/owners. The fact that it can be repeated with minimum effort is a big plus.

*A note on Raffles: Some states and municipalities have laws regarding the use of raffles. Be sure to check in your area.