Telling the Co-op Story



From November-December 2011

Seward Cooperative Grocery
Minneapolis, Minn.

Founded: 1972
Number of members: 8,700
Equity investment: $75
Number of staff: 215
Retail square feet:18,000

Seward Co-op Grocery & Deli general manager Sean Doyle describes his co-op’s location in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis as a “small town in a big city.” The neighborhood is tucked into a place close to downtown Minneapolis that gives it access to the Mississippi River, the University of Minnesota, hospitals and many neighborhood educational and arts centers. The neighborhood’s residents are a mix of immigrants, students, and long-term residents with a range of incomes. “It’s not just one demographic,” he said.

The co-op is the anchor of the neighborhood within a mile-long stretch of independent, locally owned businesses on Franklin Avenue, and most of them belong to the Seward Civic & Commerce Association. “The co-op ownership model creates a civic-mindedness that moves the dialogue beyond other city business associations. The co-op is not there for an individual person’s benefit, so it opens up the topic of what purpose are we doing this for. It builds a sense of service to the community.”

The co-op has been very active in telling its story, not only to co-op owners, but city business leaders, and the community at large. One of the things that motivates their efforts is continual attention to answering the question: Why would people choose to associate with the co-op? “This is an important question because our members’ needs could be met by the free market, especially in Minneapolis,” said Doyle.

Throughout the organization, being able to address the reasons people choose to associate with the co-op is an important part of their accountability and empowerment stream process. From the articulation of the board’s Ends through how staff carry those out on daily basis are all part of telling the story. “It can be a tool for inspiring people,” Doyle said, “It’s essential to have a compelling narrative that people can see themselves in.”

Inclusive language is key to telling a story people can relate to. “We use ‘we, our and us’ in all our communications,” he said. “It’s our collective aspiration to foster relationships between consumers and growers, and we have strong links as part of that relationship.”

Although consumers “vote with their dollars” and hold retailers accountable in that way, they are also empowering their food co-ops by giving them latitude to create programs that allow them to support those things they value. At Seward Co-op, they launched a pilot of the P6 program (based on the Co-op Principle number six, Cooperation Among Co-ops) in 2010 that gives shoppers the tools to easily identify goods produced by cooperatives and small, local producers. P6 now accounts for 38 percent of total sales at the co-op. Voting with their dollars, indeed! “Part of that empowerment is that we assume our customers are intelligent, and that there are fundamental benefits to distribution of goods through the economic system of cooperation,” Doyle said.

He added that part of that is letting people know that the co-op has a code of conduct around how it operates with intentionality regarding staff, members, the Ends, and Scorecard improvement. “That’s how empowerment and accountability come to life at Seward,” Doyle said.

“There are a lot easier ways to run a grocery store without an ownership and governance structure like a co-op,” he admitted. “But having a clear and compelling narrative about what the co-op does, this is what I’m all about too. My modest resources are being used toward this world I want. I shop at the co-op like a lot of people do because of the co-op’s implicit and explicit visions for the shape of the future.”

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