A Brief History of People’s Food Co-op
People’s is one of only two Portland food cooperatives that remain from the surge of new co-ops in the 60’s and 70’s. People’s was formed as a food buying club in late 60’s by a group of people interested in obtaining whole foods. As support for the buying club grew, the vision of a store-front began to bloom. In 1969, the food-buying club incorporated as a non-profit under the name “People’s Food Store” and by 1970 the co-op set up shop at 3029 SE 21st Avenue.
In the early days, People’s was not truly a consumer-owned cooperative, Member-Owners were not actual co-owners of the store and did not invest in a share in the co-op but rather paid an annual membership fee. In the very different economy and community around the store during the 1980’s, if you came into the store you would find products as varied from our current product selection as beef jerky and motor oil.
A New Era: People’s Food Store Evolves Into People’s Food Co-op
In 1991 sales dropped, the co-op was having a hard time paying its bills and the staff collective voted to close the store. At the time there were only two board members but they were convinced they wanted to keep the store open and set forth to hire all new management and staff to run the store and develop tactics for survival.
In this time of struggle and transition, all but two staff members turned over, and the board hired David Lucas as the General Manager. Six weeks after David started, Mountain Peoples announced they were putting People's onto C.O.D., because People's was 16 weeks behind in payments. David recruited volunteers, a bookkeeper and other staff who managed to juggle debt, negotiate with 35+ vendors and get Mountain Peoples paid off. As a strategy to increase the success of the co-op, People's began to offer a monthly Farmers' Market. It was in this era that we moved to an almost exclusively organic produce department (except some local products that were sustainable yet not certified) and membership voted to adopt the currently upheld policy of maintaining a vegetarian store, with pet food as the only exception.
Meanwhile, a number of co-op staff began working on returning the co-op to a collective management structure. The group created (and later implemented) an ingenious structure that by 1993 won the support of the board. The co-op then had two co-General Managers overseeing operations. Growth was steady over the subsequent years. In 1993, a small expansion of the store moved offices off the main retail floor, and added the current retail bulk area and sink. It wasn’t long before a checkout lane was added, as was a new exit door.
Growth Brings Success, Challenges, and Change
Sales and interest in membership at the co-op continued to grow. Soon our sales per square foot were so high that it was a challenge to keep our single-faced shelves in stock. The board, staff, and Member-Ownership began envisioning of an expansion that would incorporate sustainable building techniques, but that dream was still years in the making, as People's discovered it was going to take resolve, dedication and a champion to realize that vision.
In 1998, a four-person Management Team replaced the General Managers. Under this system, significant improvements in profitability, staff turnover, wages, financial management, and accountability were achieved. At this time there were approximately a dozen regular staff on payroll and a handful of on-call substitutes.
By 2000, growth was over 20%, and sales exceeded $1 million. People's officially incorporated as a cooperative in 2000, and began selling $180 shares in May of that year. In just over 5 months, over 500 owners invested in a PeopleShare, with total equity of over $30,000. Reincorporating as a consumer-owned cooperative was not only a way that we could better fulfill the 7 Cooperative Principles but also part of the strategy to build the equity it would take to manifest a store two-and-a-half times the size of the original space.
Converting to a Share System for Member-Ownership wasn’t the only structural change that had to occur before People's would be sustainable enough to make such a large change. The staff collective hired a consultant to support them in development of a Staff/Management structure that would support the co-op through improved efficiency and accountability. It was at that time that we conducted a major overhaul of job descriptions and moved from a loose collective structure to a team-based structure for reporting, accountability, greater empowerment for people in their jobs and teams to make decisions.
Construction of the expanded store began in the fall of 2001. The co-op was open for business for all but a handful of days during the year-plus, two-phase construction process. The Grand Opening Celebration for the beautiful, ecologically-built store was held on March 22nd, 2003.
Developing Real Sustainability
In 2004 the Board adopted the attached Financial Sustainability Guidelines. Around that time our Member-Owner economic benefit, the 4% discount, came seriously into question. A committee of Board, CM and Member-Owners at Large was formed to evaluate that system and other options. The committee report to the Board resulted in a proposal to the ownership to move to a Patronage Dividend System in order to foster the long-term financial sustainability of the co-op and the ability to be able to have more profit to reinvest back into the co-op when needed.
So Now What? The Board and Collective Management are working together to write the next chapter in People's History.