Pulse of the Twin Cities Login
If you do not have an account yet
Twin Town High (vol. 8)
North Country changes with times
Wednesday 17 November @ 00:02:25
Collective business reaches out to African immigrant community
by Bert Berlowe
The world inside North Country Co-op just grew larger. At the front of the store, a new section of East African foods—brown bags of basami flour, spices and shiro—demonstrates the recent changes in the makeup of the West Bank neighborhood and the 33-year-old business’ clientele. Members of the Twin Cities’ oldest co-op hope that such changes will allow it to survive after several years of financial struggle.
North Country officially opened in 1971 after beginning as a neighborhood buying
club, and became an integral part of the West Bank counterculture and burgeoning
natural foods movement. It was the first retail co-op in the Twin Cities and
a national pioneer in the democratic worker-owned management philosophy that
favored small farms, locally-based organic produce and political activism.
as the neighborhood and industry changed, North Country members resisted any
moves they felt would violate the organization’s founding principles.
In his eight years of working for the co-op, Chris DeAngelis has seen a flood
of Asian and East African families move into the West Bank neighborhood.
In addition, he said, the co-ops’ niche of natural foods has been co-opted
by supermarkets and big companies, forcing other co-ops to fold or streamline
“North Country has had its own unique niche,” DeAngelis explained.
“And that isolated it from the rest of the co-op movement as well as from
its community. It isn’t so much that it left the industry. The industry
left it. As a result, the co-op has been on the ropes for several years. But
they never had that sense of urgency until recently.”
North Country board member Erik Esse has been hired as a marketing coordinator
to lead the co-op out of the doldrums. “We have been in this position
since we moved to this building in 1997,” Esse said. “We have had
an operational loss of revenue. The last two years, sales have declined while
expenses such as health insurance have increased. By last September, our debts
to vendors threatened the existence of the store. We have to find a way to reduce
our debt and create sales growth or we may have to close by the end of the year.”
At last fall’s membership meeting, the co-op board discussed the options
for addressing its dilemma, including substantial wage cuts and layoffs and
even the possibility of folding its tent. “The overwhelming response was
that people wanted us to stay in business and make changes in management style,
product mix and membership rules while preserving our tradition of political
engagement and democratic decision-making,” Esse said.
Under Esse’s leadership, the co-op is instigating the following reforms:
• The board is developing a plan to sell equity in its building to its
members. Those who buy in would own a part of the building. “We aim to
raise at least $80,000 that way,” said Esse. “If the effort is unsuccessful,
we will instead sell the building [the co-op owns] and use the equity to pay
off our accounts payable.”
• Memberships that include purchase discounts are now being offered to
consumers as well as workers.
• The organization’s budget will be cut, canceling health benefits
for full-time staff and pay cuts for all workers.
• The co-op is considering revisions in its management structure including
the possible hiring of a general manager or the implementation of management
• While maintaining its commitment to local, sustainably farmed foods,
the store is increasing its selection of low-priced foods and adding items for
East African shoppers and community residents. North Country has increased its
marketing efforts to the immigrant and nearby academic communities and is offering
special sales and prices to attract them.
Isaac Asguedom, owner of United Health Foods of St. Paul, distributes Ethiopian,
Middle Eastern and Asian food to North Country. A native of Ethiopia, Asguedom
makes personal deliveries to the co-op every week. He said people come from
as far away as South Dakota to buy the products that include: brown and ivory
teff rice, berbere, shiro and several kinds of spices, all of which are organically
grown on small, independent farms in his native country. “I would rather
sell my products here than at large supermarkets,” he said. “I want
to help the co-op and the community.”
some ways these changes bring us closer to fulfilling our mission statement
and food policy, while in other ways (they) take us farther away in order to
ensure our survival,” said Esse. “Our management changes will improve
democracy by making the management more accountable to the membership but they
will reduce the decision-making power of much of the collective.”
DeAngelis agrees that the future of North Country will depend a lot on enhancing
its relationship with the new immigrants in the neighborhood and appealing to
a larger audience with a greater variety of foods. At the same time, he wants
the co-op to maintain its basic principles of support for free trade, locally-based
and sustainable economies, and peace and justice. He believes they have a 50-50
chance of making it, perhaps better if they implement the necessary changes.
If North Country does go out of business, the ripple effects could extend well
beyond their doors. “It could affect the whole co-op movement,”
DeAngelis said. “ He noted that North Country is an integral member of
the Central Circle Cooperative Grocers Association (CCCGA), a coalition of 11
Upper Midwest co-op stores, as well as being one of the few worker-owned co-ops
left in the country. It was a leader in the planning of an Upper Midwest co-op
conference that led to a national get-together in Minneapolis earlier this year.
Steve McCargar, manager of the Oneota Food Co-op in Decorah, Iowa and president
of the board of CCCGA, has been serving as an adviser to North Country and has
a personal interest in it survival. He said that the loss of North Country would
affect CCCGA. “It is the largest revenue maker of our members and the
only worker-owned member. It is unique and special.” ||
The comments are owned by the poster. We are not responsible for its content.
NO comments yet! Be the first!