(Photo via facebook.com/SouthPhillyFoodCoop)
When the brain trust behind South Philly Food Co-op was looking to bring their first retail space to life, they knew that they wanted to partner with likeminded businesses.
The co-op, which formed in 2010, will be South Philadelphia’s only community-owned grocery store when it opens this summer. Beyond providing fresh food to the neighborhood, it aims to be a hub for community and food-centric education and is cooperatively owned and democratically controlled by over a thousand local households.
South Philly Food Co-op’s leadership worked with their members and board, fellow Sustainable Business Network members Buckminster Green and Re:Vision Architecture, and Watchdog Real Estate to bring them one step closer to opening their doors.
We caught up with Emily Wyner, board member and capital campaign organizer, and Angel D’Ippolito, board treasurer and facilities committee chair, to learn more about how the power of collaboration helped fuel their success.
Sustainable Business Network: Earlier, I asked about South Philly Food Co-op’s process of creating your future retail space, and you said: “Being thorough is being sustainable.” Can you tell me more about the connection between thoroughness and sustainability?
Emily Wyner: To me, planning for the implications of one’s choices is sustainability in action. When we choose to think ahead about what it will mean for the planet to use fossil fuels, and instead invest in wind power, which has more positive effects, that is sustainability.
With a complex project like ours, identifying implications of going down path X or Y before choosing one is critical. For instance, at one point in our development, we did not have enough funds to pay Buckminster Green for the entirety of our construction job. There were a couple key options: 1.) have them start the job, and hope that our fundraising would catch up to our need to pay them, or 2.) find a different solution.
We opted for the second path because a potential implication of the first one was that we would have to ask Buckminster Green to stop work on the project midway through — impacting their cash flow as a business and, potentially, our relationship. Finding a creative solution together was an investment in the sustainability of our partnership.
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"Because all of us at the South Philly Food Co-op are volunteers with day-jobs outside of the co-op, bandwidth and response time can be really challenging."
How did communication play a role in maintaining a healthy collaboration during times when the right thing to do wasn’t always the quick thing to do?
Angel D’Ippolito: I imagine it can be really frustrating for professionals to work with startups, particularly volunteer-led startups like our co-op. Because all of us at the South Philly Food Co-op are volunteers with day-jobs outside of the co-op, bandwidth and response time can be really challenging.
Another challenge is that there can be a disconnect between us and our technical experts in understanding the terminology, technical information and processes. We have been really fortunate to have Watchdog Real Estate project managers to be our representative and liaison in working with our design and construction teams. We can be slow to act at times because of financing milestones and Watchdog has really helped manage the expectations of all parties.
How did you get connected with these partners? What were you looking for in partners? And now that the project is almost completed, what qualities do you recognize in your partners that were integral to the success of the project?
AD: We worked with Watchdog to develop and put out RFPs for our architecture and construction needs. We sent the RFPs to select firms that were sourced from suggestions from our board, our members and from Watchdog. Watchdog helped us narrow the suggestions down to find firms that were aligned with our values, and appropriate for our project size.
We wanted to hire firms that were local to Philadelphia and had connections to South Philly. We were looking for firms that were large enough to be able to appropriately and professionally handle our needs, but small enough that we felt we could have fluid collaboration. Our team also desired professional alignment in terms of considering flexibility, sustainability, creative problem solving and hiring local subcontractors.
Of course, we’re also very budget conscious, so we needed to be able to evaluate the prices based on the proposal responses and based on market pricing trends. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that we weren’t priced out of finding quality professionals and we had a really impressive slate of candidates. In the end, we found the best synergies with Re:Vision and Buckminster Green and we haven’t been disappointed.
How did you discover that you were mission-aligned and how did this express itself when you had to go back to the drawing board? What advice would you give to someone who is afraid to go back to the drawing board because they don’t want to offend someone or make waves?
AD: I think we discovered mission alignment during our interview processes. An example of when mission alignment became evident was when we had to go back to the drawing board to decide to break out our construction process into two phases. Because our fundraising hit some stumbling blocks, we weren’t able to get Buckminster Green started on the whole project. We discovered though that we really needed them to start framing so that our landlord could phase in some of its deliverable work.
My advice to give to someone who is afraid to go back to the drawing board is that you have to go into a project with an adaptability mindset. You have to hire professionals who can creatively problem solve and who are open to the idea that there’s always more than a single way to get something done. Changes in transactions happen. Needs and desires change. Personnel change. You’ve got to be able to work with those changes and roll with the punches. It also really helps to have a diverse team of thought, expertise and backgrounds. When you have a diverse team, solutions come more easily.
"Our vision is for the co-op to serve not only as a grocery store but as a community hub."
Where did your ideas for layout come from, and what was that process like?
AD: We hired grocery layout professionals from UNFI, which is a major distributor of organic and natural foods. They work with food co-ops and other natural food stores nationwide. They did a site analysis and worked with our facilities committee to develop several concepts. Re:Vision reviewed the layouts and identified specific concerns relating to code and design. The site layout came together pretty quickly and I’d say that was the result of great collaboration by all partners and incredible coordination by Watchdog.
And, finally, what is your vision for the space? Did this evolve during the process? What is on the horizon?
AD: Our vision for the space is one where our South Philly community can pop in and get everything they need locally to feed themselves and their families with natural, healthy food at fair prices. For the space itself, we wanted to make sure that it has a good flow, is welcoming, provides a product selection desired by the community and is a space where people know that they have a hand in how the store is operated.
EW: Our vision is for the co-op to serve not only as a grocery store but as a community hub — where neighbors can connect with one another and get engaged with projects and initiatives that impact South Philadelphians. And of course, we look forward to having an abundance of local, healthful foods on the shelves (and in bulk bins!).-30-
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