After the food fight

After months of bitter infighting and a rancorous labor dispute, the French Broad Food Co-op’s new leadership is setting its sights on charting a viable course for the embattled Asheville institution.

The new board of directors has come a long way since its first meeting, back on June 28, when the tension was so thick that an onlooker might have thought the co-op’s end was at hand.

Hackles bristled from start to finish. Several co-op members drew vehement retorts when they accused the previous board — including those re-elected to their posts — of having been intimidated by General Manager Jim DeLuca. Another blamed the co-op’s dwindling profit margin on the costly legal fight against unionizing workers — a battle that the FBFC lost. Others demanded that the new board nix a proposed move to Coxe Avenue — a plan pushed by the previous board and DeLuca. And one co-op member went so far as to argue that DeLuca’s new one-year contract had been improperly approved by the previous board.

“After that first meeting, based on the tensions, I felt I should resign,” said Regi Blackburn in a recent interview (he had served on the previous board and had just been re-elected). Throughout the long and bitter conflict, Blackburn has maintained that DeLuca has done a good job and that the co-op should relocate to a larger building, in order to survive in the modern business world.

Those sentiments put Blackburn in the minority on the newly elected board.

“The rumor [of my departure] got out, and I started getting phone calls from board members and owners, urging me to stay,” continued Blackburn. He credits pro-union board member David Ramsey with persuading him not to quit, saying, “We need all opinions on the new board.”

Said Blackburn: “That really renewed my spirit. What that was telling is, there is room for a difference of opinions at the co-op. We’re willing to argue for the good of the co-op, without getting mad at each other.”

Shifting to consensus

By Aug. 2, when the new board met for the third time, tempers had cooled.

At that meeting, Board Chair Cicada Lafey suggested dispensing with the formality of motions and votes previously used by the board, arguing, “We don’t all know Robert’s Rules.” Instead, he urged the board to begin making its decisions by consensus. Board members would make suggestions and proposals for consideration; if there was a clear consensus, those ideas would be approved, postponed or dismissed, accordingly. The change, felt Lafey, would both enable the board to get more done and help heal old wounds. He also repeatedly but gently tried to steer the discussion away from personal attacks and toward substantive policy issues.

With that settled, the board members turned their attention to a looming question: the co-op’s future.

Treasurer David Ramsey asked permission to refinance the mortgage on the 90 Biltmore Ave. property and borrow an additional $100,000 for capital improvements and a cash-flow boost. That would allow the co-op to repair refrigeration equipment and fix a leaky warehouse roof, both long-standing staff concerns, he noted. With the lagging sales and high legal costs incurred during the first half of the year, “Operating funds are so low, we don’t even want to disclose [the amount]. … We need an influx of cash now,” declared Ramsey.

Board members nodded their consent.

New board member Michelle Crane sought approval to create and display a calendar that would inform shoppers, staff and owner/members about co-op events, activities and news — including board and subcommittee meetings.

Both the previous board and DeLuca had been criticized for withholding information from owner/members and giving them little input in decision-making. Board member Rusty Sivils remarked, “If we’re going to reach out and empower owners, we have to get information out, and it has to be where people can see it.”

The calendar proposal was approved. The board also announced its intention to hold a meeting on Oct. 4 in order to give owner/members an opportunity to ask questions, get information and make comments — primarily about the decision to stay at 90 Biltmore.

Other board business proceeded smoothly, the main constraint being a lack of time to address the numerous proposals put forward. One proposal by DeLuca, however, raised all the old hackles once again: Should the board authorize him to pursue (and, possibly, prosecute) the party or parties who had stolen the owner/member mailing list and used it to send out pro-union, anti-DeLuca statements earlier this year?

“We absolutely know that the first mailing was done by the union and the second by [Global Report writer/editor] Brandon Conley,” DeLuca declared.

“I’m a union member, and I don’t know that the mailing ‘absolutely’ came from the union,” retorted co-op employee Beth Trigg.

Board member Crane objected that it isn’t fair “to make assumptions [and] accusations.”

And Treasurer Ramsey questioned the need to pursue the matter, urging DeLuca to focus on finding a better way to safeguard the list, instead. Others agreed.

An exasperated DeLuca threw his pen down on the table and persisted with his request.

But Lafey steered the discussion back to a proposal everyone could agree on: publishing an apology about the unauthorized mailings in The Scoop, the co-op’s bimonthly newsletter.

After a bit of haggling over how the apology should be worded, the mailing-list discussion ended … and so did the public portion of the meeting. Before the board went into closed session, new board member Patrick Welch commented: “I hope the union doesn’t want to drag the co-op into bankruptcy. We’re arm in arm here.”

“We all want the co-op to work,” added his wife, Gail Welch, who shares his seat on the board.

Trigg said she appreciated everyone’s efforts “to make the co-op the best [it] can be. I don’t think any process has to be adversarial if we don’t want it to be.”

For his part, a much more relaxed DeLuca (he even laughed a time or two during the meeting) said he liked Lafey’s “light and lively” movement-and-stretching exercises, performed during a break in the board meeting.

Differing visions

Even with the easing of tensions, the co-op board, its staff and owner/members face a daunting question: How can the co-op survive financially at a time when even mainstream grocery stores such as Ingles are muscling in on the organic-foods market?

“The uncertainty of the future seems more oppressive than exciting,” DeLuca wrote in the July-August issue of The Scoop. In recent months, he had pushed for the co-op to relocate to Coxe Avenue. But when asked in August to comment on the co-op’s future, he would say only, “We’re on totally different pages,” speaking about his own convictions and those of the new board. He declined further comment, saying he should seek permission from the board first.

At press time, DeLuca had returned no e-mails or phone calls. The board has since announced that he is actively seeking a new job.

Some board members, however, were more willing to voice their vision for the co-op’s future.

“We’re not in the business of competing,” proclaimed Michelle Crane. She says she’d like to see the FBFC focus more on the basic co-op principles: supporting local farmers, bakers and suppliers; doing community outreach and education; providing a “living wage” to employees; and “more owner empowerment.” The board has revived a subcommittee charged with determining how the co-op should be managed — continuing the current board-and-general-manager arrangement or switching to a less-hierarchical structure, such as a management team staffed by department heads who report equally to the board. “The corporate model hasn’t worked,” Crane declares.

“We don’t want to fight Earth Fare,” says Trigg; “We have a very different ethic. The co-op is decidedly anti-corporate; that could be a good thing.” The FBFC, she argues, “needs to market [its] strengths. If people are opposed to Super Wal-Marts, they should be supporting the co-op and supporting something positive.”

And that, she feels, includes the new union. While acknowledging that many owner/members and employees feared a union “would ruin the co-op,” Trigg observes: “Already, people seemed relieved. The co-op didn’t get invaded by burly storm troopers.”

Teamsters Local 61 Secretary/Treasurer Johnny Sawyer also took pains to allay those fears, saying: “There’s a big misperception that unions put companies out of business. That’s not what we want to do at all.” Sawyer, who will represent the co-op’s new union in its upcoming contract negotiations with DeLuca, observed: “Money was never the issue [at FBFC]. Workers want a voice. They want to have a say in the workplace and not be dictated to, or have some workers treated differently than others. Their jobs are a big part of their lives, and they want a say.”

“I don’t think providing better working conditions and … wages for employees excludes a corporate model,” counters board member Tom Bader. “I personally believe, if you run a business — whether a regular business or a co-op — you hire people with the expertise to run it.” For Bader, that expert was DeLuca. As for alternative management models, he points out that the co-op did try having three department managers in the past, and it didn’t work.

And if DeLuca does take a job elsewhere, Bader at least will be sorry to see him go: “We’re going to be losing a manager who’s very good; I’m not sure that what he brings to the co-op can be replaced.” Nonetheless, Bader concedes that there have been communication problems between management and staff, particularly with regard to the handling of employee grievances. And he supports finding ways to improve working conditions and pay scales. Still, as Bader sees it, “Although I believe we should certainly make the effort to resolve staff and member issues, at the end of the day, we have to be concerned over whether the co-op can survive as a business.”

Finding a niche

Slowly, painfully, the co-op’s board and members appear to be trying to set aside their differences and focus on finding a viable common vision.

“The board is vested with the authority to run the business. [But] we don’t have a set agenda as to where we go from here. It’s up to our membership to help us,” says Chairman Lafey. “There’s definitely a tug between [corporate] and co-op philosophies. Now we’re pulling back towards the co-op model, but it’s a very difficult thing to compete with the larger natural-food chains,” he observes. “It’s important for us to figure out what our niche is. We are a co-op, and that’s our strength.”

Lafey acknowledges that the FBFC needs to expand its product line, make improvements to the store, and do more to attract shoppers. Employee A.D. Anderson has suggested a co-op “village” that would include a store, a cafe and meeting space. And another board subcommittee has been charged with considering such ideas, Lafey mentions, adding that he’d like to see members and staff participate actively in evaluating possible solutions.

New board member Marty Bergoffen minces no words when asked about the co-op’s future: “I think we’ll move past the Jim [DeLuca] era and hopefully — hopefully — we’ll get a less hierarchical management structure, one that’s more open. Even the new board has had trouble getting [financial and other] information from DeLuca.” That said, how does the co-op pull together after a tense beginning in the new millennium? “Rebuild our membership and get back those [members] we’ve lost,” Bergoffen replies. He suggests, too, that the store could use new, more inviting signs to lure shoppers.

“You don’t have to be a member to shop at the co-op,” fellow board member Tracy Davids points out. To move forward, she argues, the co-op must both induce more nonmembers to shop there and get current members more involved in decision-making. One way to do that is to get the word out: “We’re not here to compete with grocery stores or Earth Fare. We’re here to offer organic food and educate people on healthy lifestyles.” Even if some products at the co-op are more expensive than similar items in a mainstream grocery store, she believes, customers are enjoying other, perhaps-less-obvious benefits, such as locally grown, pesticide-free food and a chance to support companies whose production methods don’t harm the environment.

“The best way to educate people is to provide variety [and] give them a choice,” asserts Blackburn. He still feels that moving to a larger facility would be best for the co-op’s future, and he questions the wisdom of “pouring money” into the aging buildings at 90 Biltmore. “We’re in a weak position right now: Memberships are down, sales are down. Sometimes that’s the time to make changes. That may well be the time to be innovative.”

And Lafey concludes, “It’s not what we are that determines who we are, but how we’re doing it.”

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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