East Aurora Co-op Market
East Aurora, NY
Opened: June 2016
Number of members: 1,280
Number of employees: 25
Member investment: $200
Retail square feet: 4,445
East Aurora Food Co-op in upstate New York has been open for over a month now, but they continue to celebrate the co-op’s opening in large and small ways. It is always a giant accomplishment for a community to open a business, especially one that costs $2.2 million and represents the manifestation of a vision for tapping into local agricultural markets, providing jobs, and offering greater food access.
East Aurora is a town founded by agriculture, and part of the impetus for starting the food co-op was to support local farmers and provide things for the community that people had to drive far away to get to. East Aurora also has a strong independent streak—fifteen years ago they successfully stopped a Walmart development out of concern for local business. Ditto a Wegman’s grocery store. Clearly the people in the town wanted local ownership and control, but as the founding members of the food co-op discovered, not many people knew about the co-op model as a potential win-win solution for making the local economy a priority.
“We felt that a co-op could be something people could really take ownership of,” said Sheila Conboy, currently the co-op’s general manager, and who was also involved early on as a co-op organizer. At the time, the town’s Main Street was going to undergo a development planning process and in 2010 it seemed right to propose starting a food co-op. After the founding group researched the idea, the town was invited to a panel discussion to learn more and find out whether or not they would support a food co-op development project. To their delight and surprise, 400 people came to the meeting to hear more and enthusiastically consider it.
The founding group went from four people to ten, and grew exponentially over time to include the founding board and numerous volunteers. Conboy said, “Tim Bartlett, the general manager at Lexington Food Co-op in Buffalo, New York advised us at one point, ‘Hire Bill Gessner and do what he says.’ So we did.” Every step of the way, CDS Consulting Co-op, the Food Co-op Initiative, National Co+op Grocers and NCG Development Co-op supported East Aurora Food Co-op’s development. The founding group actively sought their advice and based all of its development activities on the Four Cornerstones in Three Stages startup development model.
Their project was capitalized by owners ($1 million) and the rest through local banks, LEAF and Shared Capital Cooperative. As much as they always needed funds to continue their work, Conboy emphasized the importance of connecting with the co-op community early and maintaining a strong relationship with many co-op professionals and organizations. “We worked with a lot of great people who helped us prioritize,” said Conboy. “How you utilize your resources is really important to use your time efficiently.”
“People are thrilled,” Conboy said about the co-op opening. During the project she said there were times when it was challenging, and they had to remind themselves why they were doing it and to keep believing in it. Now that the doors are open, the positive reception has been gratifying. “Right now there are people on the patio eating and enjoying being at the co-op. Something like this will make the community better.”