(Rendering by Strada LLC Architects)
After five years of organizing as a start-up cooperative with the goal of opening its first community-owned grocery store in the Ambler area, Ambler Food Co-op (AFC) has found success as it works with Northwest Philadelphia-based cooperative Weavers Way to open a local Weavers Way store this July.
But while it may seem like a bittersweet victory — AFC will soon dissolve as an organization as its more-than 500 members voted unanimously Feb. 19 to transfer their memberships and assets to Weavers Way, as part of a partnership agreement — it’s evidence of how a co-op like AFC is willing to make the decisions that best benefit the community.
In this situation, a cooperative with no physical location decided to become part of one that already has two established stores. It’s a move that reminds of Nonprofit Repositioning Fund Director Nadya Shmavonian‘s championing of sharing and collaboration as the nonprofit sector’s most important values.
“We are not grocers, and [Weavers Way] has the operational skills to know that we can have a business here that will thrive,” said Kathleen Casey, president of AFC, in an email. “We will focus on making the store the best it can be for area residents and continue to build the community programs that make co-ops special.”
According to a press release, the transfer will officially take place once Weavers Way secures $2.3 million in commercial loans for construction and equipment going toward the store, of which $1.5 million has already been raised by member-owners of Weavers Way and AFC.
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We’ve seen firsthand the years-long process it takes for co-ops like Kensington Community Food Co-op and South Philly Food Co-op to secure physical locations. And according to Casey, it was pretty much the same deal for AFC, with money and credibility being key issues, in addition to the challenge of finding the right location. (“Ambler was built in the 19th century so many of its properties are far too small for a store; parking is also very challenging,” Casey explained.)
“Raising capital is very intense and time-consuming, especially when opening a grocery store takes millions of dollars. It is doubly hard when you’re raising capital on a project without a physical space to show,” she said. “You have to build credibility and faith in the organization merely by speaking of the need and the vision. But, as advocates of cooperatives, we believe it is important work because it shows you can fulfill real community needs through cooperatives.”
It was late 2014 when AFC members really started to consider partnering with Weavers Way, as the closing of a Bottom Dollar grocery store at 217 E. Butler Ave. provided both an opportunity to acquire the property to open their own store and a sense of urgency: It has been Ambler’s only grocery store and only stayed open a little more than a year, which meant AFC had to act fast.
“We had to fix it for ourselves, as we seek to have good food available to residents in our area, many who do not have cars to drive to a store (and there is no easy public transportation) or are elderly,” Casey said.
Unfortunately, being a startup meant that it would be extremely difficult for AFC to acquire the building. That’s where Weavers Way came in — and lo and behold, just a few days before AFC voted to transfer, Weavers Way signed off on a sublease with Aldi Corp. (which acquired all 66 Bottom Dollar locations in the Greater Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas from Delhaize Group) for the location.
“If it weren’t for partnering with [Weavers Way] we would not be looking to open a store this summer and certainly would not be equipped to open a store of this size!” Casey wrote.
All in all, Ambler and the soon-to-be former AFC members will be getting their long-awaited community grocery store — a pretty impressive-sounding one at that, with the 10,000 square feet planned to be housing health and beauty departments and providing pet supplies, in addition to more prepared food options and a café.
For Weavers Way, this whole experience has shown that what they’re doing is working and that more expansion efforts could be on the horizon.
“Weavers Way has been looking for expansion opportunities for several years,” said Mary Sweeten, communications manager at Weavers Way, in an email. “[AFC] members made the case that Ambler would be a good place for us to look at. Market studies (ours and theirs) confirmed that. As for the physical store question, the cooperative development consultants we work with have made the point over and over that it is easier to expand an existing operation than to start from scratch.”