It takes a village: French Broad Food Co-op announces expansion proposals

SERVING THE COMMUNITY: Since it's grassroots origins as a small, owner-led grocer in 1975, the French Broad Food Co-op has grown into one of the most popular businesses in downtown Asheville. The FBFC now plans to expand its facilities and offerings and is proposing ideas for addressing community issues of affordability and housing. Photo via the French Broad Food Co-op.
SERVING THE COMMUNITY: Since it's grassroots origins as a small, owner-led grocer in 1975, the French Broad Food Co-op has grown into one of the most popular businesses in downtown Asheville. The FBFC now plans to expand its facilities and offerings and is proposing ideas for addressing community issues of affordability and housing. Photo via the French Broad Food Co-op.

Exciting news from the French Broad Food Co-op: The iconic community-owned food market and grocer has announced initial plans to expand its current space on the 60-100 block of Biltmore Avenue and plans to reach out to community organizations and the city of Asheville to begin discussions on the possibility of a massive multi-use facility.

According to a press release from the FBFC, the Co-op has issued a development “request for proposals” and wants to offer the city its help in addressing several economic woes that have plagued residents in recent years.

“Co-ops have always looked at the bigger picture and how our involvement can impact even one customer or one staff or one farmer,” says Sage Turner, finance and project manager for the FBFC. “When we step back and look at the amount of land we are dealing with, we realize it would be an under-use of crucial land in downtown to simply repave it as a fancier or bigger parking lot.”

She cites the FBFC’s history of innovation among local businesses — such as providing employees with a living wage, its support of community festivals like the Lake Eden Arts Festival and Lexington Avenue Arts Festival, as well as its work with local nonprofits to provide job opportunities and help feed those in need around Asheville — as reasons the grassroots organization has risen to prominence.

This high local profile provides an opportunity to be a voice for the greater community and take a leadership role in addressing citywide problems, Turner says. “Before our development team published or announced any planning, we hosted a meeting that was open to the public and asked, ‘What would you do?'” she notes. “Over 100 people attended, chose the 20-plus possible topics themselves, divided into groups to elaborate, and then presented their ideas: Mixed use, addressing parking and sustainable building were the top three.”

While it would be easy to get ahead of itself with all these grandiose proposals, Turner notes that “this expansion is about the co-op first. Owners want a full shopping experience, want us to remain financially strong and want us to continue our community-building work.” To that end, the co-op has conducted studies on expanding its retail floor space from the current 3,800-square-foot space to anywhere from 10,000 to 14,000 square feet.

“We are aiming to become a full shopping experience for the greater community and to fill gaps that force residents of downtown to leave downtown for basic needs,” she says, noting that customers have “pleaded with us for years to add additional departments and expand areas like fresh foods, dry goods, and grab and go items.”

But serving their mission downtown, Turner says, means looking beyond their immediate needs and toward some of the greater issues in the community. “We’d like to help address our astonishing [downtown] vacancy rate (0.9 percent) and do so with as much affordable and workforce housing as possible.”

The FBFC is looking to partner with organizations around the community and city officials to begin discussions on how the expansion project can possibly incorporate units for housing, retail, a new parking deck and public space, among other ideas. “We’ve run the studies. We can see growth, but also limits,” Turner says. “The conversation has become: Is just a store the highest and best use? Can we do more? If we can find the right partners we can help address several economic woes.”

FBFC General Manager Bobby Sullivan concurs, saying, “We think we have a unique opportunity here to anchor this side of downtown to be everything local people want for the future of Asheville.”

The co-op has already let several organizations involved in housing and equity issues in on its vision, including Mountain Housing Opportunities, whose Vice President and Director of Community Investments, Cindy Visnich Weeks, is excited about the idea. “MHO is committed to visionary projects like this,” she says of the FBFC’s proposal. “They change the development paradigm while meeting the housing and economic development needs of our local citizens.”

While Weeks acknowledges that such grandiose projects can be more challenging to finance and build, she notes that “they are more sustainable and are always the ones we are proudest of.”

And according to Turner, the FBFC understands that the issues facing the community are complex and interconnected. “We can build all the affordable housing we want, but if we do so apart from food and transportation access, we have only band-aided the issue and created a new one.”

While the Co-op has proposed and implemented ideas to address some of the socioeconomic woes of their patrons and the surrounding community for years, including rooftop gardens, food donations and fulfilling needs in “food deserts” throughout the area, Turner says that, “ultimately, co-ops require volume to succeed and prosper. Any one of those ideas could have stretched us too thin in our lean state of $4 million [in] annual sales and 2-4 percent net profitability.”

But she adds that Asheville residents’ unique focus on supporting local businesses and making conscious decisions in what they buy and where they shop presents an opportunity for the co-op to flourish even as it expands its scope. “We’d like to grow this co-op to $10 million or more in sales, create more jobs, support more producers and farms, keep food prices low for our community, and create a 2-4 percent net margin that provides enough cash flow to do the aforementioned dreams without putting the co-op at risk.”

The FBFC hopes to finalize its expansion plans in 2016 and begin construction sometime in 2017. “It’s such an exciting time for the co-op and the greater community of Asheville,” says Clare Schwartz, Outreach Coordinator for FBFC. “I invite you to become an owner and join our vision to support local, create healthy and sustainable jobs and relationships and, as our Global Ends Policy states, serve as a model of a sustainable business alternative that nurtures social and economic well-being.”

For more information on the French Broad Food Co-op, its current offerings and community programs and its proposals for expansion, check out frenchbroadfood.coop or see the official press release below.

Press release:

Downtown co-op issues development rfp for 60-100 block of Biltmore AVE, offers city opportunity to address several current economic woes

The Co-op to build bigger store on current site, seeks partners for housing, retail, offices, parking deck, public space, and a poses a radical question: Could a Co-op & City owned hotel help fund community needs?

Asheville, NC, – In case you hadn’t noticed, the community owned French Broad Food Co-op is a local socioeconomic powerhouse. What began in 1975 as a group of citizens trying to source better quality foods has evolved into a growing engine of community fervor and impact, channeling $20M through Asheville in the last five years. Notably, the Co-op became the nation’s first certified living wage grocer and became a primary sponsor of LEAF in Schools & Streets, LAAFF, and other area causes that support community.

They added a hot bar, filled it with food made by GO! job training programs, and completed the cycle by sending leftover hot foods to area shelters each night. They’ve hosted urban homesteading fairs and brought chickens, rabbits, fruit trees, and classes into town. The Co-op has hosted a downtown’s farmer’s market for 18 years, added downtown’s first rooftop honeybees, sent their CEO to Capitol Hill to fight for GMO labeling, and maintained sales growth in one of the most saturated natural foods markets in the US- even after multiple big box chains opened.

The Co-op has always looked to local producers and farmers first and focused on ways to get affordable foods to the public. Getting involved means saving money on groceries, and quadrupling in size means increased opportunities for many local businesses and farms, as well as 60+ new permanent jobs, and hundreds, if not thousands, of temporary jobs during construction.

Sage Turner, Finance & Project Manager says, “This expansion is about the Co-op first. Owners want a full shopping experience, want us to remain financially strong, and want us to continue our community-building work. Our Owners are also bright and innovative folks, quickly voting mixed use and sustainability to the top of the priorities list. One Owner inspired me, saying, ‘It isn’t affordable housing if our Co-op staff can’t afford it.’ The Co-op can limit the expansion to only a larger footprint store. We’ve run the studies. We can see growth, but also limits. The conversation has become, is just a store the highest & best use? Can we do more? If we can find the right partners we can help address several economic woes. We may be Beer City and Best Destination this and that, but we are also top ten food insecure and have a .9% vacancy rate. And let’s not forget the over crowded streets, infrastructure demands, loss of revenues due to legislative changes, and the community’s desire for more public space in downtown. Everything comes down to viability. We won’t put the Co-op at risk, we’re simply saying let’s have this conversation.”

Bobby Sullivan, the General Manager of the Co-op says, “Co-ops offer a dynamic business model that nurtures authentic relationships with the local community to make sure local people have a say in how businesses develop in their city. We think we have a unique opportunity here, to anchor this side of downtown to be everything local people want for the future of Asheville.”

Cindy Visnich Weeks, VP & Director of Community Investments at Mountain Housing Opportunities says, “MHO is committed to visionary projects like this. They change the development paradigm while meeting the housing and economic development needs of our local citizens. Infill, mixed use, redevelopment projects may be more difficult to finance and construct but they are more sustainable and are always the ones we are proudest of.”

Clare Schwartz, Outreach Coordinator for the Co-op says, “It’s such an exciting time for the Co-op and the greater community of Asheville. I invite you to become an Owner & join our vision to support local, create healthy & sustainable jobs and relationships and, as our Global Ends Policy states, serve as a model of a sustainable business alternative that nurtures social and economic well-being. We’ve extended our Owner Drive through Nov 5. Come see us.”

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About Max Hunt
Max Hunt grew up in South (New) Jersey and graduated from Warren Wilson College in 2011. History nerd; art geek; connoisseur of swimming holes, hot peppers, and plaid clothing. Follow me @J_MaxHunt

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