The other day someone stopped by my office to say, "So, I heard you guys were bought by Amazon."
I have a prepared response for this question, ever since the Amazon buyout of Whole Foods Market in August. But my canned response ("We're not the same Whole Foods. We're a locally-owned co-op with the same name") is becoming well worn. We have joked internally about getting shirts that say very specifically that we are NOT the Whole Foods Market.
In the 1980s when we became Whole Foods Cooperative Association, Whole Foods Market was expanding out of Austin, Texas. The Co-op and Whole Foods Market both grew, unaware of each-other for several decades until the 2000s when Whole Foods Market started buying out smaller chains in our region.
For many years the name association was a non-issue. It was a trade off: out-of-towners searching for a familiar corporation would accidentally Google us, but just as often local-focused consumers assumed that we’re that corporate behemoth. Now, our focus has to be highlighting our community roots to combat the immediate name recognition for a brand that is not our own, and for actions that are not our own.
Over the years we have shared some similar goals that have made the association palatable. Providing access to healthy foods has been a shared value since the beginning. However, we diverge in some important ways that make our efforts to disassociate from the brand more pressing; particularly because we want to be known for what we do on our own merit. One of the most important distinctions is in our roots and our ownership. The Co-op is owned by Erieites. Profits made by The Co-op go back to our near 8,000 member-owners, or are invested back into the store and the community. There isn't a distant CEO in a distant city collecting an obscene year-end bonus; and there isn’t a team of faraway executives making decisions for our store and employees.
Everyone making decisions for the Co-op is here in Erie. The priorities for The Co-op expressed in our motto "Erie, Environment, Education" are decided by the Board, who are elected by the member-owners. Every month they meet in our Community Center, and the meeting is open to every member-owner. Our Board is made up of hard-working community members who are passionate about community ownership, many of whom live within walking distance to the store.
As the General Manager, I ensure that I am available to listen to your thoughts, concerns, questions and aspirations, either through email firstname.lastname@example.org) or any time my office door is open. The Co-op is so close to where I live that on nice days I walk to work, passing Pebble Park on days when I want to take the long way and really enjoy the walk.
Our buyers (who decide which products and vendors we will carry) all work in-store, are easily accessible, and have direct contact with all our suppliers. Debbie, our body care buyer, works with local retailers to ensure their products meet our strict product standards. Sei, our produce manager, works to support local farmers looking to meet organic guidelines. All the Co-op buyers are Erie locals, invested and ingrained in our community.
When you shop The Co-op, you are supporting Erie's only community owned grocery store. When you join the Co-op, you get to be a part of a larger group of Erieites working to meet our community's needs now and far into the future.