Creekside Co-op, located in Cheltenham just north of Fern Rock Transportation Center, announced last week that it is in danger of closing before its one year anniversary in November. The announcement came through an email sent from Creekside to its members explaining the situation and apologizing for its past shortcomings:
“We know that the store was disappointing when we first opened, and we are sincerely sorry for the frustration caused and that we didn’t change more quickly,” the email stated.
Victoria Young, general manager of Creekside, echoed this sentiment in an interview with Generocity. “We had a relatively rocky opening. We were as ready as we could be, but we were not quite where we wanted to be or where the community wanted us to be,” she said.
Young said that Creekside is making around $85,000 a week in sales when it needs to make $125,000 to cover overhead and debt service. One reason for the low sales is the usual “summer slump” caused by people going on vacations, but Creekside was making less than $100,000 before the summer started and has never exceeded that amount by more than a few thousand.
“We never really got to where wanted to be before the summer downturn hit,” Young explained. She cited a lack of parking as perhaps the main reason sales have stayed low. There is no designated parking attached or nearby the co-op. Young believes this has served as a mental block for many potential customers. Still, the co-op has no intention of adding parking spaces given that the entire property is already built out.
For now, Creekside is making a concerted effort to reach out to its members and to fellow co-ops for assistance. It has asked its members to do more of their shopping at Creekside, spread the word to friends, and volunteer to hand out leaflets at the nearby Elkins Park regional rail station.
As for fellow co-ops, the Energy Co-op is reaching out to its members in the Elkins Park area and encouraging them to shop at Creekside. Other food co-ops, such as Swarthmore and Weavers Way, have both expressed their support and are looking into providing direct aid through outreach and the creation of marketing materials.
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A Problem of Scale
The Creekside Co-op was founded with the goal of serving as a one-stop grocery store and a community hub in downtown Cheltenham, a once bustling business district that has recently emptied of prominent stores. Whether these ambitions caused it or not, Creekside has ended up closer in scale to a small supermarket than your average neighborhood co-op.
The three other established food co-ops in the Philadelphia area, Mariposa, Weaver’s Way and Swarthmore, for the most part began as small buying clubs or neighborhood stores. Only after years did they attempt to significantly expand, renovate or open a second location.
But Creekside emerged in a very different climate, where supermarkets like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have gained popularity by being both large and, to some extent, environmentally and socially responsible. In fact, the gourmet grocery store that used to occupy Creekside’s location went out of business due to competition from this new breed of supermarket and other chain stores moving into the area.
Starting out larger may seem like a quicker way to satisfy modern consumers, but it also has a downside.
Glen Bergman, general manager of Weaver’s Way and long-time supporter of Creekside, pointed to overhead costs as a part of Creekside’s problem. “What’s happening here is that they are doing good sales, at $80,000 plus per week, but with the cost of the renovation and the size of the operation they need to be bringing more cash in,” he said.
At 9,200-square-feet, Creekside is about the size of your average Trader Joe’s. Though Trader Joe’s has recently shifted towards building bigger stores, its average store size has long been between 8,000 and 15,000-square-feet.
To put these numbers in perspective, Mariposa’s original location was only 500-square-feet, and its new location is 7,000-square-feet. This size is close Creekside’s, but it is worth noting again that Mariposa only hazarded this expansion and relocation after being established in the city for nearly four decades. Its new location also has the benefit of being located on Baltimore Avenue, an up and coming and highly trafficked commercial corridor.
Food co-ops now in the process of forming seem to be leaning towards smaller locations. The Doylestown Food Co-op, for example, is moving into a space at the beginning of September which is just 1,400-square-feet. This has vastly different implications for its role in the community and its operational costs, explained Lisa White, president of the co-op’s board.
“We are going to be a very different kind of store than Creekside,” White said. “We’re not going to try to be what Creekside is, which is a full-service grocery store.” Instead, White added, the Doylestown Food Co-op will provide a minimal stock of local food and essential products.
The South Philly Food Co-op (SPFC) is seeking a location around 5,000-square-feet, according to Dan Pohlig, head of the communications and marketing team at SPFC. While nearly half the size of Creekside, Pohlig stressed that there is still tension between providing variety and operating at a manageable scale.
“We want to make sure the scale is large enough to offer variety so that are members will be satisfied with the number of products we offer, but not too large initially that we cannot handle things on the cost side,” Pohlig said.
But no longer are Philadelphia co-ops taking these steps alone. Numerous support networks have emerged in resent years, including the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA) and the Delaware Valley Food Co-ops — which Generocity has covered since its inception.
In fact, the Delaware Vally Food Co-ops, an informal network consisting of Mariposa, Weaver’s Way, Swarthmore, Creekside and a number of startups, will be meeting this Thursday to discuss strategies for collaboration. Bergman of Weaver’s Way said that Creekside’s sustainability will be a major focus of the meeting.
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