Helpful Partners: Engaging Members & Local Producers/Businesses

By SaraBeth Drybread of Columbus Food Co-op


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  Reach the Food Co-op Initiative staff anytime at

“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. 


Great Events: FED Talks

by Carol Rauschenberger of Shared Harvest

Shard Harvest logo
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.

Shared Harvest in Elgin, IL faces a common startup struggle-building community interest in local food, and in the idea of a community-owned food co-op. Our thanks to Carol Rauschenberger, the founder of this startup food cooperative, for sharing this Great Event with us. For more information on their event, email Carol at Reach the Food Co-op Initiative staff anytime at

To connect with the public and reach potential coop members, Shared Harvest is always looking for ways to educate the community about food-food systems, safety, accessibility, and similar issues. Finding great ways to bring people out to talk about food issues, and learn about the co-op, can be an ongoing challenge.

Two years ago we did a film series on food-The Shared Harvest Film “Feastival”. We learned that a short film is better than a long one, especially when not sitting in a comfy theater seat. Our participants looked for a brief facilitated discussion after each film. We did the series primarily at the local library. In true food co-op style, we featured some healthy munchies, and we averaged about 30 people per event.

FEDTalks Full House SHared HarvestThis spring we sought another avenue to educate people about food and our co-op mission. We had thrown around the idea of TED talks two years ago. After some research, we realized that was not an easy road to take. There is a lot of preparation and paperwork to even be qualified to be part of the TED Talk series.

Still liking the idea of the TED talks, we came up with our own version: FED Talks, short for Food EDucation Talks. Using a similar TED format of 15 minute presentations, we provided three brief and passionate talks by local experts. Including introductions and a brief discussion time, we offered our target audience a succinct and thought-provoking hour long event. Two factors could support our success: many passionate people in the area have great knowledge about various food topics, and our award-winning Gail Borden Public Library would include us in their quarterly flyer. The library flyer goes to every household in the community. We also publicized the talks through Facebook and email.

Eagerly, we reached out to several potential speakers, settling on three. By offering an informal atmosphere, we felt even inexperienced speakers could feel comfortable. A local organic farmer, spoke about the “Importance of Local Food”. “Following Your Passion” was offered by a mushroom farm worker, and a master gardener shared “What the Local University Extension Can Do for YOU”. Two of the speakers used slide presentations, and we had a volunteer signal the three-minute warning to each speaker.

Blog Facts FedTalksThe weather was cold but clear on the evening of our FED Talks in early February. We planned for an audience of 30 people, but wound up with 50. We had a brief facilitated discussion after the talks and many people lingered over snacks for a good half hour longer.

Though we were not able to measure direct membership sales from the event, it was well attended. The speakers were passionate and interesting to listen to and well-received by the audience. Our only regret is that we didn’t film the talks.

Both our film and FED Talks series demonstrate our commitment to the community and food education. Our second FED Talk is coming up in May. We already have our speakers lined up, and are looking into video taping them .

FCI: Why We Like This:  An  event like Shared Harvest’s FED Talks can be a low demand on an organizing team yet still help define the co-op as a convener of thought and innovation around a community’s food system. It builds the co-op’s legitimacy, relationships with other food-focused thinkers, and is a form of food education for the community. It is important to demonstrate how the co-op brings value to owners and the entire community before the doors are open. Some efforts to do this take so much energy they may sidetrack the ultimate goal of opening a store. Putting on a FED Talks event once or twice a year can build community value without diverting energy. Including a solid membership push would enhance the event.