A happy place again

“There’s no longer that ‘us-vs.-them’ attitude between staff, the board and owners.”

— FBFC board Co-Chair Michelle Crane

Good often follows on the heels of trouble.

A couple of years ago, the French Broad Food Co-Op appeared to be at war with itself. Owner/members complained that the manager and board were mismanaging the business. Employees raised concerns about working conditions, wages and the attitude of management. An initial decision to move the store from 90 Biltmore Ave. to a costly new facility on Coxe Avenue was overturned. Accusations and countercharges flew; workers rallied and (by a narrow margin) voted to unionize.

Manager Jim DeLuca resigned amid a mixed chorus of cheers and folks bemoaning his departure. Meanwhile, the store was losing money.

In the past year, however, the Co-Op has turned its first profit; later this year, it will distribute the funds among its nearly 950 members, says Board Co-Chair Michelle Crane.

“There have been a lot of internal and external changes,” says Crane about the Co-Op’s substantial turnaround after the disastrous year 2000. She mentions the improved store aesthetics, including signs inviting the public to shop. “Some people have the misperception you have to be an owner [to shop here], but that’s not so,” says Crane, who joined the Co-Op when she moved to Asheville in 1996.

Other external changes include a community bulletin board outside the main entrance and outdoor seating for staff and customers, Crane notes. Soon to come is a coffee bar in the front of the store, to complement the Co-Op’s mini-deli (an early initiative of board members who took office two years ago that offers sandwiches, muffins and other baked goods to go, says Crane).

But the biggest changes, Crane maintains, have been internal: “It’s like a whole new attitude. There’s no longer that ‘us-vs.-them’ attitude between staff, the board and owners. … We’ve definitely shifted toward a more cooperative attitude.”

“You hear laughter now in the store,” notes employee Lola LaFey, who was active in the push to unionize. The union (Teamsters Local 61), she says, has brought better wages and benefits for cashiers and other workers. Managers and clerical employees aren’t unionized, but all full-time employees can take advantage of a group rate on health insurance, not just union members.

“You hear about businesses laying off their employees, then later hiring [new ones] at lower wages,” says LaFey, adding, “So in such a time of uncertainty, it’s a good thing for the employees [to have the union]. The relationship between the workers, the board and management is great.”

Long-time employee A.J. Bowman offers a more cautious assessment of the recent changes: “Let’s see what happens. Things always seem to work out, but I guess I’m kind of a worrywart, and I have some concerns.

“I’m one of those funny old-timers,” explains Bowman, who has worked for the Co-Op since 1990, when it was little more than a cubbyhole in a funky River District warehouse.

Back then, she recalls: “The little coolers we had were donated from the blood bank and still had the labels. You’d be stocking the produce under O+ and the milk under A+. But it was the only place in town to get your vegetarian needs met.” When the Co-Op moved to 90 Biltmore, Bowman made the switch from volunteer owner/member to one of the first regular employees.

Bowman, too, feels things are much calmer now than they were in 2000, though she admits to having tried “to stay in my own little world as the bookkeeper and just do my job” amid the turmoil.

“It’s better since the union; there are better, more fair rules [for employees and management alike]. I see that as a good thing,” she says, adding that unionized employees also have more security, and grievance procedures are now spelled out clearly.

Co-Manager Renee Taylor calls the union contract “a blessing in disguise.” She, too, notes that “everything’s written out in black and white” — a key point for workers, since one of the major bones of contention two years ago was the handling of employee/management disputes. Since the coming of the union, employee turnover is “way down” and wages compare favorably with what most local grocery workers earn, says Taylor.

She came to the Co-Op in December1999 as financial manager and, after weathering the storm, went on to become co-manager with Suki Schaefer. Taylor describes herself as the “back-end manager,” handling the financial/business side while Schaefer runs the front end — improving the look and feel of the store and interacting more with customers and staff.

Sales are up, in part, because the staff is happier, shoppers feel more welcome, and Schaefer’s front-end improvements have made a difference, Taylor asserts. “Maybe, too, word is getting out that the Co-Op is a happy place again,” she remarks.

A key part of that change in attitude crept in two years ago, says Crane, when the newly elected board switched from formal, often divisive votes to consensus-based decision-making (in which board members discuss an issue until they achieve a sufficient level of agreement to go forward). One of the biggest frustrations of that “bad year,” she maintains, was the feeling among some board members, owners and employees that their concerns and opinions weren’t getting heard. With the consensus approach, “Everyone gets the feeling they’re being heard.”

As for the union, Crane observes that the Co-Op and its owners “would be hypocrites if we weren’t interested in having our employees’ concerns addressed.” Providing a livable wage and benefits to employees, she explains, is as central to the Co-Op’s mission as offering healthy foods and other environmentally friendly products, Crane explains. “The Co-Op is an icon in this community [both] for healthy foods and for making a political statement, [because] being a member of a co-op breaks down the corporate paradigm.”

Underscoring that last point, she emphasizes that the Co-Op buys locally produced organic produce and notes that its first annual profit is money that will stay in the community.

Nonetheless, cautions Taylor, ever mindful of the bottom line, “We still have to function as a grocery store and survive in the marketplace.” That means keeping pace with a growing number of competitors: mainstream groceries that are offering more and more organic foods, the larger (and non-co-op) Earth Fare, a new downtown grocery store planned for the Grove Arcade, and a new co-op now being built in West Asheville.

Still, Taylor remains optimistic, declaring, “We can retain our co-op principles but stay nimble enough to survive.”

And the fundamental challenge, she observes, is the same as it was during that difficult year: “staying on top of consumer demand [as any grocery would strive to do] and balancing that with our mission.”

Taylor also notes another challenge: rebuilding the owner/member base, which has dwindled since the turmoil (and a switch from giving owners discounts at the register to annual rebates based on profits), she explains. To turn that trend around — and beef up public relations with the local business community — the Co-Op has hired an outreach coordinator and is redesigning its brochures. (Seven seats on the Co-Op board are now open; applications will be taken until May 2.)

Such details are important, but when Crane is asked how she feels about the difference between the Co-Op then and now, she responds: “Part of me wants to say I’m proud of our new direction, except I have a hard time saying ‘our new direction,’ because I feel we’re getting back to our roots. I’m actually glad big groceries are now offering organic products. … That gives shoppers an opportunity to explore healthy food options and maybe find out what we’re about. The Co-Op is a good choice to make: Come in and find out.”

The French Broad Food Co-Op will hold its annual owner/member meeting on Saturday June 29; call 255-7650 for more information.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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