River Valley Co-op Expansion my Third Outlook Focus
I’ve shared two of the stories I wrote this year for the Springfield Republican’s annual Outlook section on the region’s business and economy. One on Lili Dwight and the fire alarm app she is developing and one on Crooked Stick Pops of Easthampton.
Today’s blog features the third Outlook piece I wrote for editor Cynthia Simison; it’s on River Valley Co-op in Northampton. This market is a hot spot in the Valley, and its growth over the years has been tremendous. My housemate Craig Fear is a steadfast member and shopper, as are many of my friends.
It was a privilege to interview these leaders in the local food industry.
River Valley Co-op
Our Family Farms sold milk at the River Valley Co-op when the store first opened in April 2008, a time when small businesses in the country were struggling as a result of the Great Recession. “One of the owners of the local dairy cooperative came to our 2009 annual meeting,” said Rochelle Prunty, River Valley’s general manager since 2001. “They talked about how the economy hit them so hard.” She teared up with emotion, struggling to add, “But because the co-op opened, that’s what helped them get through it. They were able to keep their farm.”
Prunty is incredibly grateful about this kind of success story and the fact that the natural foods co-op has helped launch—and sustain—many other local farms. The business, which sells local and organic products, celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2018 with various events, including a birthday party in April 2018 and partial sponsorship of Easthampton’s Millpond.Live music series in the summer.
Since it first incorporated in 1999 and began selling co-op ownership shares at $150 per—the same one-time fee for the privilege today—the co-op has grown to 10,200 owners and 160 employees, over 90 percent of whom are full time. It sees $28 million in annual sales—more than twice what was predicted by its founders. This is no small feat in a competitive market that has suffered from online sales and fierce industry competition.
“In 10 years, we’ve purchased $40 million in local products that have gone into the community,” Prunty said. “We’ve made contributions to local nonprofits every year, totaling over $800,000 in 10 years. It feels like a really symbiotic relationship with the community. Because we’re independent and community owned, we’re able to adapt and evolve as needed with the changing times.”
Prunty, board president Andrea Stanley—also a farmer in Hadley and the owner of Valley Malt—, and Natasha Latour, the co-op’s marketing manager, agree that the co-op’s overwhelming popularity and growth came because it meets the needs of Valley residents. “It’s never about making the sale or making the money,” Prunty said. “The food meets peoples’ needs. Supporting local farmers meets peoples’ values. And in the process, we build community.”
“We’re set up to sell what people want to buy,” she added. “Corporate supermarkets are set up to sell what big manufacturers want people to buy.”
High volume at the co-op means the parking lot and the aisles are over-crowded. This has Prunty and the board looking to expand in Easthampton on property formerly owned by Fedor Pontiac Oldsmobile on Route 10. The co-op already has 1,700 owners in Easthampton, and the dealership property, sitting on over four acres of buildable land, seems ideal.
Prunty said co-op leaders are looking at the feasibility of building a roughly 20,000-square-foot grocery store, considering financing and building costs. “We’re looking to break ground in July 2019 and open in July 2020,” she said, adding, “This is not yet a done deal. We expect to finalize our plans, fundraising, and secure financing for a final decision by June of 2019.”
She said the projection is that the second location could bring in about $14 million in annual sales. “Easthampton is a community that supports local entrepreneurs. It’s incubating lots of different kinds of local businesses,” Prunty said. “That kind of thinking, and that kind of spirit has good synergy with what we do, and it feels like a good match.”