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. 

Helpful Partners: Donated Marketing Rocks!

By Dennis Rosenblum of Bay City Cooperative
 bay city
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.