From the Soil, Up

The Long Beach Grocery Cooperative seeks 1,000 members to open the only grocery store of its kind in the city. 

WORDS BY: BRIAN VARELA
PHOTOS BY: TERRAH STARLING

Damon Lawrence and his wife walked into a little market in Portland, Oregon, in order to get something to eat. As they walked through the aisles, Lawrence noticed the fine quality of the grocery store and its products. They grabbed some sandwiches and drinks and made their way to the checkout line.

“Are you guys member-owners?” the cashier asked.

Immediately, Lawrence thought he had stumbled into a members-only store where a password was needed to enter. He had noticed it wasn’t an average market.

“No,” Lawrence replied, as he was already getting ready to put everything back. Before he could, the cashier promised Lawrence he had done nothing wrong and that, in fact, he could still purchase the items. The cashier explained that he had entered a grocery cooperative.

The main focus of a grocery cooperative, or a co-op, is to buy locally-sourced products and sell them to the community. Members of the community can buy shares and become partial owners, and it is up to the members or owners to decide what products the store will carry and  who the board of directors and general manager will be.

It’s been years since Lawrence, who now lives in Long Beach, had walked into that store in Portland and even thought of a co-op again. When the Albertsons store in his neighborhood closed and was left vacant, he took the grocery-cooperative idea and presented it to a neighborhood association, a group of residents or property owners who organize activities in the area.

The association knew it was going to be a big task, but Lawrence took on the challenge of creating a unique grocery store in the Long Beach area. Now, he is working on bringing a co-op of his own to the downtown district called the Long Beach Grocery Cooperative (LBGC).

“We could have sat and waited for a Sprouts or Trader Joe’s to open, but we decided to take our food back ourselves,” Lawrence said. “It doesn’t work off of the profit motive; the motive is to serve the community.”

During the month of March, the LBGC set a goal to sign up 100 members. It reached that number in four days.

People pay a one-time fee of $250 to become a member. If a member decides to get rid of his share, he can only sell it back to the co-op. Lawrence said that California law for grocery cooperatives limits the maximum price to become a member at $300 and requires them to live in the state.

The LBGC will be in a position to sign a lease for a building once it reaches 300 members, but the co-op has a goal of 1,000 people before deciding to open its doors.

Michelle Berns, volunteer coordinator for the LBGC, said the store will have the same items as other grocers but will instead source them locally, as most cooperatives do. Potential foods include ice cream churned by Long Beach Creamery, gluten-free bread prepared by a number of bakeries found in the city and produce grown by local farmers.

“The community gets to have all these things in one store, with a general manager who listens, and people from our area who are paid a living wage– with benefits– and are happy, healthy and committed to the customers who shop there,” Berns said.

Members of the organization will decide “democratically” how profits collected through the co-op will be used, Berns said. She suggested the money might be stored, distributed amongst members or donated to the community through grants.

If and when the store experiences a time of low-economic growth, Lawrence said the last thing the association will do is layoff employees. He added that members can do a number of things to counter low sales, such as limiting promotional deals or prioritizing profits in the right place.

Building the co-op from the ground up is no easy task. The LBGC is currently attempting to gather its resources and the capital required in order to get the lease for the building. The owners are trying to avoid getting a bank loan.

Once the store is full of community members and has taken an active role in the community, the LBGC will definitely feel a deep sense of pride in its organization, Lawrence said.

“It’ll become more than a grocery store,” he said. “It’ll become a community center.”